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Keeping Officials on the Record

By Andy Alexander

President Obama’s promise of transparency aside, a culture of anonymity still exists in official Washington. There is perhaps no worse example than public officials insisting their remarks be off-the-record when they address large audiences.

Now, some media groups are pushing back. They are in the early stages of asking news industry associations and Washington media outlets to sign on to a draft letter that urges Congress, federal agencies and the Obama administration to end the practice.

The letter, which they ultimately plan to send to press secretaries, implores them to “address a common source of friction between reporters and the public officials they cover – off-the-record comments at public meetings."

The letter continues: “This practice primarily involves Congressional and federal agency staff members, who frequently offer insight into policy deliberations at widely attended events such as conferences, but either refuse to allow reporters to use the information or insist that they cannot be named in news stories.”

The effort was initiated by BNA (officially the Bureau of National Affairs, Inc.), which produces an array of print and online publications covering everything from tax issues to labor law. BNA is working with the Sunshine in Government Initiative, a coalition of press groups -- the Newspaper Association of America, the Associated Press, the American Society of News Editors and others -- to push for open government. (Full disclosure: In the past, as a board member of ASNE, I have worked with SGI.)

“We cover a lot of conferences as part of our in-depth work on different subjects, and we kept running into this,” said Toby McIntosh, BNA’s Director of Editorial Quality Review. He added that the frequency of officials going off-the-record at large public gatherings became “frustrating” and “we thought maybe we should try a more institutional approach to address it.”

After getting a core group of groups to sign on, they hope to expand the list by the end of the month. The Washington Post will be asked to sign on, he said.

Then, McIntosh said, the letter will sent on to press secretaries, in the hope of convincing them to stop the practice. It might also lead to “follow-up meetings” to discuss the problem, he said.

“Standing in front of 300 people and declaring your words to be ‘off-the-record’ is frustrating for reporters, but it’s also silly,” said Rick Blum, SGI’s coordinator. “With Twitter, blogs and old-style e-mail, the lobbyists, bloggers and other opinion-shapers in the audience will repeat your words a thousand different ways before you step off the podium. But a reporter who respects the traditional rules of the road can’t report what you say to a broader audience.”

Blum also urged conference organizers to not invite reporters to cover conferences where public officials impose restrictions. "Be sure your speakers agree to talk on-the-record,” he said.

“If you speak before a large audience in an open meeting or when press are invited, don’t jump off-the-record,” he said. “We hope to raise awareness that reporters are frustrated with the unpredictable and unnecessary jump off-the-record.”

The letter comes as media groups continue to push presidential press secretary Robert Gibbs to end so-called “senior administration official” briefings in which high-level officials talk to groups of reporters but insist they not be identified. This tactic has been used often by administrations to shape their message. A corollary is that when high-level officials make statements on the record and before the television cameras, questions from reporters are prohibited or limited.

The White House Correspondents' Association voiced objections to this practice early in the Obama presidency. A small number of Washington bureau chiefs met with Gibbs in June and again this month to discuss the problem.

“I think the White House has made a significant effort to listen to and accommodate our concerns,” said USA Today Washington bureau chief Susan Page. "We've seen real changes take place at the White House on this front.”

She said most White House briefings are now being held on the record, adding: “I give Robert Gibbs a lot of credit for taking these steps.”

By Andy Alexander  | July 15, 2009; 3:11 PM ET
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I thought “off the record” was a two-way agreement. How can someone speaking at a public event declare that their words are off the record? Why do reporters pay any attention when they do say it?

Posted by: hgillette | July 16, 2009 1:41 AM | Report abuse

I thought OTR was a privilege granted by the REPORTER, not dictated by the speaker. Maybe if print journalists showed a bit of a spine in terms of actual reporting and not just dictating notes, we wouldn't be in this situation.

Posted by: ah20619 | July 16, 2009 5:48 AM | Report abuse

Like the previous poster, I always assumed OTR was a mechanism journalists and editors used to keep their sources happy.

Lets hope the WaPo takes a baby step and signs the agreement, but why does Sunshine in Government have to push this? Isn't this the job of the editor and reporter? Sounds to me like there are a bunch of cowardly journalists out there trying to hide behind a coalition of advocacy groups. Don't you modern journalists understand that standing up to, seriously questioning and confronting government officials is what the press is all about?

As the whole Salon fiasco made clear, you guys and gals in the MSM are way, way too cozy with the political parties, the corporations that lobby them, the think tanks that supply OpEd copy & "conferences" and the powers that be. The WaPo writer's group itself is about the worst. If it wasn't for arrogance, I don't know what any of you would have left.

BTW. Good luck on improving the paper's reputation and quality, the Palin stunt on the editorial page was the perfect start.

Posted by: protagoras | July 16, 2009 8:20 AM | Report abuse

My view is all such anonymous commenting by the press should be barred, followed closely by barring reporters from interviewing other reporters and calling it news.

My particular pet peeve is the phrase "official, speaking anonymously because s/he is not authorized to discuss the issue." Well, if they're not authorized to speak then why is the reporter talking to them, why are they talking to the reporter, and what value are the comments?

Investigative reporting and protecting souces are an important check/balance on us all - but when quoting anonymous or unnamed officals as the basis for _news_ becomes the habit and not the exception then all we get is anonymous spin.

Oh, wait, that's what DC is all about!

Posted by: FairfaxTaxpayer | July 16, 2009 8:45 AM | Report abuse

Posted by: protagoras

Don't you modern journalists understand that standing up to, seriously questioning and confronting government officials is what the press is all about?


If they did, PBO wouldn't be President. Their motto: Don't ever ask a question you don't really want the answer to.

(Or in proper English: Don't ever ask a question to which you don't really want an answer.)

Posted by: waterfrontproperty | July 16, 2009 9:34 AM | Report abuse

There is a legitimate interest in cultivating anonymous sources for news leaks, which may be in the public interest (e.g., "Deep Throat").

However, if a public official (or their press secretary) makes a statement in a public forum and tries to declare it "off-the-record" they have abnegated their right to secrecy. Reporters should not hesitate to report the information, as well as the source of the information.

Should editors cringe at the idea of "letting the sunshine in," it is a reporter's duty to leak the information to the public in some other fashion (Twitter, message boards, news blogs, etc.).

Those who would deny the public the right to know, at a public forum, deserve to be publicly humiliated for their actions.

Posted by: Purplestatevoter | July 16, 2009 11:57 AM | Report abuse

I don't want to read, ever again, a reporter quoting a source, and then noting the person can't be identified. Look, the person who wants his message to be put out, but doesn't want to be identified, is not a reliable source but almost certainly has an agenda. Reporters, just don't do it. Rather, do some reporting.

Posted by: lowercaselarry | July 16, 2009 10:14 PM | Report abuse


A major news story in Washington DC, and the Washington Post has not printed a word about it all week. What's up with that?

All week MSNBC, and all the major News Blogs have been doing stories about the "C-STREET GANG."

A so called "RIGHT WING CHURCH", on C-STREET, in Washington DC, where several Republican Senators, and Congressman use as a "CONDO BUILDING/CHURCH", but a lot has been or is going on between those WALLS.

Sen. Ensign(R-NV),lives there, Gov. Sanford (R-SC), use to live there, and a few more Republican Senators and Congressman live there as well.

They call themselves "THE FAMILY", or "GOD'S MAFIA"

The Guys at the Washington Post must be "AFRAID", to go any where near the place.

Posted by: austininc4 | July 16, 2009 10:37 PM | Report abuse

Number One, The numbers keep looking better and are going to look even better soon. That's unofficial, but you know...going up-good-going down-bad. Keep going. I got to go. Think Fast!

Posted by: Dermitt | July 17, 2009 2:57 PM | Report abuse

There is no such thing as off-the-record public comments. This is as much a part of the "traditional rules of the road" as respecting private OTR conversations.

How about lobbying news organizations to adopt a uniform OTR policy? The policy could include a section that formally defines OTR as a mutual, clearly-stated understanding. That way, reporters can simply point to industry standard when they choose to identify anyone who speaks in a public setting -- which is absolutely their right. Meeting organizers will be forced to make a choice: your meeting is either public or private. If it's private, better make sure reporters aren't on the guest list.

Posted by: bmyers41 | July 20, 2009 4:20 PM | Report abuse

One reason sources request anonymity is because they're lying.

Posted by: tresangelas | July 22, 2009 12:39 PM | Report abuse

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