I Don't Understand "Off the Record"

I haven't blogged at all about the whole Eason Jordan thing, partially because blogging on it would be like adding one extra reporter to the Superbowl, and partially because his comments, while way out of line for head of a journalism organization, didn't seem to be much worse than all the other things he has said over time.

Anyway, I mention it here because whether his comments were "off the record" seems to be an important part of the controversy.  I can't think of any ethical justification for this distinction.  I can understand when comments are "private" (say with my family around my house) or "confidential" (say with my managers about what we are paying someone) or even "anonymous" (such as when a source might be blowing the whistle on their boss).  What, though, does it mean if public comments in a public forum are "off the record"?

The only practical, rather than ethical, justification I can come up with is that someone wants their remarks to be "off the record" when they are telling one audience something different than another audience.  Such as when a politician speaks radically to his/her hard left or right base, but doesn't want moderate voters to hear the extreme positions they are advocating.  Or such as when a US news director makes anti-American comments to an anti-American audience and doesn't want his US viewers to hear.  There is nothing very pretty about either of these situations - why does the media continue to enable this behavior?

The only other argument I can come up with is that the media tends to be so incompetent that they can seldom summarize a speaker's remarks correctly or quote them in context, and speakers know this, so they use "off the record" to protect themselves from the media's incompetence.  But if this is the true justification for "off the record", it is ironic and funny to see the head of CNN news using it.  He is basically saying that "I know in advance that my own organization will get my remarks wrong so I won't allow them to quote me".

UPDATE and PREDICTION:  I resisted the call by a number of web sites at the beginning of the year to make predictions for 2005.  However, now I will make one:  We will soon see calls, from media insiders, to bring a tighter licensing or credentialing system for journalists, similar to what we see for lawyers, doctors, teachers, and, god help us, for beauticians.  The proposals will be nominally justified by improving ethics or similar laudable things, but, like most credentialing systems, will be aimed not at those on the inside but those on the outside.  At one time or another, teachers, massage therapists, and hairdressers have all used licensing or credentialing as a way to fight competition from upstart competitors, often ones with new business models who don't have the same trade-specific educational degrees the insiders have.  As Milton Friedman said:

The justification offered [for licensing] is always the same: to protect the consumer. However, the reason is demonstrated by observing who lobbies at the state legislature for the imposition or strengthening of licensure. The lobbyists are invariably representatives of the occupation in question rather than of the customers. True enough, plumbers presumably know better than anyone else what their customers need to be protected against. However, it is hard to regard altruistic concern for their customers as the primary motive behind their determined efforts to get legal power to decide who may be a plumber.

Such credentialing can provide a powerful comeback for industry insiders under attack.  Teachers, for example, use it every chance they get to attack home schooling and private schools, despite the fact that uncertified teachers in both these latter environments do better than the average certified teacher (for example, kids home schooled by moms who dropped out of high school performed at the 83rd percentile).  So, next time the MSM is under attack from the blogosphere, rather than address the issues, they can say that that guy in Tennessee is just a college professor and isn't even a licensed journalist.

Fortunately, this effort will fail, in part because it is fighting the tide of history and in part because constitutional speech protections would probably invalidate any strong form of licensing (I wish there were similarly strong commerce protections in the Constitution).  Be careful, though, not to argue that this proposal will fail because the idea is stupid, because it can't be any more stupid than this form of licensing (or this one;  or this one).  Here are the various trade-specific licenses you need here in Scottsdale - I would hate to see the list for some place like Santa Monica.  My favorite is the one that says "An additional license is required for those firms which are going out of business."

One Comment

  1. LazaX:

    Are Journalists Being Targeted?

    There has been a lot of noise in the blogosphere around CNN's chief news executive Eason Jordan's remarks. In short, he noted “off the record” that U.S. soldiers targeted and killed journalists in Iraq; then retracted the statement while be...