By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 8, 2008
How does a Harvard professor and Pulitzer Prize-winning author manage to blow up her brief political consulting career over the use of the phrase "off the record"?
Samantha Power resigned as a foreign-policy adviser to Barack Obama yesterday, hours after the Scotsman newspaper quoted her as making a disparaging remark about Hillary Clinton -- although, immediately after uttering the comment, she asked the reporter not to use it. As the story recounted:
" 'She is a monster, too -- that is off the record -- she is stooping to anything,' Ms. Power said, hastily trying to withdraw her remark."
Technically, any agreement to put comments off the record -- meaning they can't be reported -- must be worked out in advance between journalist and source. But many reporters say it is common to grant such requests if they are made right after an inflammatory remark.
Reached in Edinburgh, Mike Gilson, the Scotsman's editor, said he did not think the paper had been unfair to Power. "This was clearly an on-the-record interview that was taped," he said.
Gilson said he could not allow a situation "where any subject can edit after the fact. I don't think Ms. Power has made an issue of that herself. We were confident we were making the right decision."
Power was quoted as taking other swipes at Obama's Democratic presidential nomination rival, which Gilson says came after the "monster" comment and which Power did not attempt to place off the record. Power said of Clinton, "You just look at her and think, 'Ergh' . . . The amount of deceit she has put forward is really unattractive." Power was also quoted as saying of the Obama campaign, "We [messed] up in Ohio."
Suddenly, with Clinton supporters calling for Power's head, the Obama campaign rushed out a statement in which Power apologized for her "inexcusable remarks" and said she was quitting as an unpaid adviser. Power did not respond to an e-mail request for comment yesterday.
The contretemps illustrates how a journalistic conversation that moves back and forth between different levels of attribution depends on winks, nods and, ultimately, some level of trust between the participants. A subject who goes off the record temporarily is supposed to indicate when his or her words can be quoted again. Some conduct interviews off the record or on background, meaning not for direct attribution, and then make a journalist read back comments for permission to quote. Subjects who dish off the record may be trying to establish a bond with their interviewer, or to float rumors or criticism without being held responsible.
Reporters, naturally, tend to grant more slack to sources they have worked with in the past. Gilson said he and his reporter, Gerri Peev, had not met Power before.
The Irish-born Power, 37, is no stranger to the media glare. Men's Vogue called her one of the world's most beautiful women, a "Harvard brainiac" who has played basketball with George Clooney. The profile recounted how the words "It's Obama. Call me" showed up on her cellphone.
After the Illinois senator asked to meet with her to discuss her book on genocide, Power took a year off to work in Obama's office because, she has said, she was struck by his brilliance. Her foreign-policy views have occasionally drawn flak -- Clinton yesterday pounced on Power's comment to the BBC that as president Obama would not rely on the Iraq-withdrawal plan he is pushing as a candidate -- but nothing on the scale of the "monster" controversy.
The Scotsman interview took place in London, where Power was promoting her new book, "Chasing the Flame," about a U.N. envoy who was killed by a suicide bomber in Iraq.
A onetime reporter for the Boston Globe and U.S. News & World Report, Power is a Time columnist, a contributor to the Atlantic and the New Yorker, and a founder of Harvard's Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. She won the 2003 Pulitzer for nonfiction for her book "A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide," and a 2005 National Magazine Award for a New Yorker article on atrocities in Darfur.
Alex Jones, a Harvard media analyst, says he has heard Power talk about Obama with great fervor.
"She's used to being independent, outspoken, and she's a passionate person," he said. "She's someone who is constituted to speak her mind. And she's in a situation where speaking your mind is not something you do in the middle of a presidential campaign. . . . It was something she should not have said, and immediately realized she should not have said."
Eric Deggans, media critic for the St. Petersburg Times, agrees that Power should have known better than to use such language. "This is an astonishing lack of judgment for someone who has as much experience as she does," he said. "She's been profiled a zillion times, has been on 'The Daily Show' and had interactions with lots of reporters. You really have to establish these ground rules in advance."
But Mark Feldstein, who teaches journalism at George Washington University, said the rules are "a little murky. I teach my students that it has to be said in advance, but this was so immediately after that I wouldn't have run it. I think it was a low blow. I suspect most U.S. mainstream publications would not have run it."
Gilson, the Scotsman editor, said he figured the story would have repercussions across the Atlantic. "It's sad, because clearly she's a bright and intelligent person," he said.