The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The solution to President Obama’s off-the-record sessions with journalists

President Obama, as depicted by Reuters

New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan is right to side with news consumers who are concerned about journalists from the paper meeting for off-the-record sessions with President Obama. One such session occurred last Wednesday, just before the president gave his speech on the response to the Islamic State. As the Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone reported, well-known figures from the New Yorker, The Post and the Times were among those in attendance.

One reader, Tom English, complained to Sullivan: “To me, it really looks like the meeting was held to run talking/propaganda points by the media to see how best to sell the war.”

Here’s the thing about that: Given that the affair involved insiderish journalists and the president talking about affairs of state under secretive ground rules, English is pretty much entitled to reach whatever conclusion he most suspects. After all, there’s no transcript to dispel his suspicions. Sullivan rightly notes that President Obama hasn’t innovated these sessions, which have a long history in the White House. However, she notes:

[S]uch meetings shouldn’t be a substitute for allowing news reporters, on behalf of the public, to grill the president on the record – especially on a subject as weighty and important as impending military action. But increasingly, they seem to be just that. Readers are right to be troubled about the implications.

Right on. Warnings from media watchdogs such as Sullivan, as well as from this blog, will do nothing to curtail this practice. That’s because the honor of chatting in the White House with the commander in chief is too much to pass up over mushy ethical considerations. The objections of journalists to these sessions more often relate to the fact that they weren’t included than that they open the door to a blurring of journalistic boundaries.

The perfect antidote to these shadowy gatherings comes from the Times’s own Peter Baker. He wrote the story last weekend that exposed the off-the-record meeting with journalists (as well as another meeting earlier in the week). Since he didn’t participate in the meeting, he wasn’t bound by any off-the-record compact. Via reportorial legwork, Baker squeezed from participants various thoughts expressed by the president, including mockery of his critics. He got good stuff, though nothing particularly scandalous. The lesson: When you sit down with a group of people in Washington, especially journalists, nothing is going to stay off the record for long. Might as well just let the tape recorders run.