Credit CNN’s Brian Stelter with a very big scoop. On today’s “Reliable Sources” media-news program, Stelter reported that “high-profile news anchors” have spoken in “secret locations” with Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. The sessions have been off-the-record and, the way Stelter tells it, they’ve been auditions for one of the biggest exclusives of this century — namely, the sit-down talk with the elusive officer who killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., on Aug. 9.
Some details exist. NBC News’s Matt Lauer, ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos, CBS News’s Scott Pelley and Anderson Cooper and Don Lemon of CNN have met with Wilson, according to Stelter.
“Because it was off the record, those anchors can’t talk about the meetings and the networks can’t even confirm that they happened,” Stelter notes.
For just about any other story, this would be standard television ritual, no big deal. In off-the-record negotiations, networks commonly court all kinds of interview “gets” — celebrities, athletes, scholars and unintentional public figures like Wilson himself. Someone secures the exclusive and goes on a PR blitz, and the losers sulk.
Yet this is the case of Darren Wilson. As the Washington Post’s Chico Harlan noted in a recent story, Wilson has pulled off an extraordinary disappearing act since his clash with Brown. So absolute has been his exit from the public eye that the St. Louis County prosecutors’ office said that “several” pending felony cases relying on testimony from Wilson “could not proceed” in his absence, Harlan reported.
More from Harlan:
What makes Wilson’s case notable…is the completeness of the information void: Wilson left no traces on social media. His police chief says they haven’t spoken since the aftermath of the shooting. Even at pro-Wilson rallies, most who show up say they’re simply showing support for police officers and due process. Nobody in Wilson’s far-flung family has spoken on his behalf.
Those circumstances place Wilson’s interview pursuers in a bind. Merely courting him as an interviewee is indeed not only standard practice but also good journalism: Wilson’s side of the story will be told and must be told. And there’s really nothing untoward about keeping those discussions off the record; it’s a courtesy that’s granted to all manner of prospective interviewees.
There’s a big “but” in the middle of this, however. When “off the record” is used to protect not only what’s said in a particular meeting, but also the meeting itself, it becomes a tool not so much for journalists but for the sources seeking to own them.
Let’s consider the White House. For years, presidents have been holding off-the-record sessions with reporters in attempts to co-opt them, to get advice from them, to stroke them — and, perhaps, to enable them to do their jobs better. As this blog discovered to its great dismay, getting journalists to acknowledge their participation in such events is a challenge. “Since it was off the record, she’s unable to discuss,” a Huffington Post spokesman once told the Erik Wemple Blog about Arianna Huffington’s attendance at one of the sessions.
Even so, journos have occasionally come forward and admitted that they participated, as did the Washington Examiner’s Byron York following a December 2013 session with the president, as reported by the Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone. “To interested tweeps: Yes, I was at WH meeting Tuesday with President Obama,” wrote York. “I agreed beforehand that content would be off the record. It was good meeting; really helped me better understand WH perspective on current matters.”
Just to clarify: York attended an off-the-record meeting but felt free to report its existence. When the Erik Wemple Blog asked people on Twitter whether off-the-record always equals can’t-acknowledge, we received this response, in part:
@ErikWemple Depends on whether that was part of the original specification
— James Fallows (@JamesFallows) November 23, 2014
What the television networks have done here is to bind themselves to a more restrictive, more censorious version of “off the record.” A more gross one, too. That Wilson would be absenting himself from official court testimony while shopping his story around to TV network types is enormous news in and of itself — perhaps as big as what he might eventually say in the sit-down interview.
For the record, I met briefly with Darren Wilson a few days ago to see if he wanted to do an interview with me. That’s standard procedure
— Anderson Cooper (@andersoncooper) November 23, 2014
— Don Lemon (@donlemon) November 23, 2014
That’s the way we’ve always done it is never an intelligent defense.
Perhaps CNN was attempting to voice its own revulsion over the off-the-record restrictions via Stelter’s scoop. When we asked whether the network was acknowledging that the sessions in themselves were huge news, he replied, “I’d say that it was an effort by me, not by CNN as an organization, to acknowledge that.” Not to mention the effort by Stelter’s sources, who refused to sit by as ego-driven network anchors played games with the public’s right to know.