Why would anyone speak to the press off the record?

No he didn’t. It was already posted above his response he started that talking “off-the-record” doesn’t mean the same thing as “don’t quote me on this.” He’s dealing with the latter, not the former.

If his contention is that the previous information is incorrect, then that is the more pertinent information, since even the OP seems to assume the above.

I know that my exposure to the term off-the-record agrees with the distinction. I’ve never heard anyone complain that their name was associated with something. They always seem more upset that the information got out at all.

But even if EM is correct, I question the wisdom of trusting the ethics of a stranger. Especially when I’ve seen the press out so many people.

I’ve got enough practical experience both in and with the media (admittedly not in the US, but in at least three other countries) to understand that for all practical purposes there’s often either very little or no practical difference between the two concepts, but every situation is different and when there’s even the merest salmon of doubt, one should err in favour of assuming the information is completely “Off The Record” and should ideally not be used at all.

It’s all dependent on the individual situation, of course, and ideally a journalist should clarify what their source intends when they say “Don’t quote me on this”.

A point that was made by Chris Matthews (of Hardball fame) was that there is an invisible line when it comes to off the record information. There is a two way street when it comes to political information. Both sides judge that it is in both their interests to maintain the information flow. However there is no contract or client confidentiality ethic. If the information is such that there is either an ethical issue in with-holding, or simply that the story is too hot to justify maintaining the confidentiality agreement, the confidentiality will be breached. Chris noted in particular that overt racial slurs would pretty much void off the record status. OTOH, this was the US and the 80’s.

One notes that in the political area politicians and journalists form an interesting symbiotic relationship. Each provides what the other needs. It isn’t always healthy.

As was observed in Yes Minister, the ship of state is the only ship that leaks from the top.

That’s our job.

Long time reporter, here, and I agree with much of what Exapno wrote. However, the McChrystal case really wasn’t an example of taking to someone on background, or talking to anonymous sources. It was an example of being embedded with a source with some sort of ground rules about what could be reported and what would not. I have never been embedded with a general, but it’s an issue that often comes up covering criminal trials, where a reporter is asked not to reveal some details of the case until after the trial. Just as I suppose reporters in combat situations are asked not to reveal operational secrets.

That said, I have no idea why a commanding general would invite a reporter from Rolling Stone to spend a month with him. The tone and substance of the article were exactly what I would have expected from that publication, and I’m not sure why that caught his press officer by surprise.

I’m sorry that you think that a brief introduction to how reporting works could cover the millions of specific person-to-person situation-to-situations that occur every single day. Nothing can. The rules can change during the course of a conversation. Different reporters have different interpretations of those basic phrases and so do the people that they are talking to. It’s an odd counterpoint, one that throws elements of trust into what is a fundamentally adversarial relationship. As long as people are involved, there can never be full understanding.

I remember one article in which I arranged for a formal interview with a businessman who had large investments in the area and had built yet another new office complex. He asked me politely not to use his name in the article because he didn’t like revealing personal information. He was, however, the sole point and focus of the article. Not using his name would have meant canceling it entirely. I equally politely reminded him of this and went on. Should I have stopped? No. Because after understanding the ground rules he talked to me on the record.

There are ethical implications whenever an article is reported. But the subjects of most articles are adults. They are rich, powerful, experienced, educated, sophisticated, and almost certainly more expert on their subject than the reporter. If they want to say things to the press, they are fully capable of taking responsibility for what they say. If they want their words not to be reported, they are also fully capable of knowing how to make that clear as well. There is no single magic phrase that confirms immunity. The world isn’t a Harry Potter novel. You start with an agreement and go on from there or you shut up. Sometimes just being an adult is sufficient.

You might very well think that, but I couldn’t possibly comment.

KneadToKnow - I do have a wife, cat, and dog and want to protect them from our state bird here in California, the lawyer, as much as possible, typically by keeping my head down when mayhem ensues.

Frisco - I’m not sure why you feel a company can’t make one of the terms of your hiring an agreement you will not talk to the press about company related matters. That seems reasonable to me. While pharma and defense are both regulated in the FDA/national security sense, in both cases where I have been in a situation regarding reporters looking for a story, it had to do with an acquisition of the company. In the case of the former CEO of the defense company, had he sold us to another private company, I don’t know how that would have played out since the other company was not employee owned, and our company was being well undervalued in our opinion. That CEO was very old and was interested in getting out while he could to the detriment of his employees, which is dumb because we collectively owned more than 50% of the company. His solution was to try to get a number of the older employees with lots of shares to vote their shares with him. There was a rumored bonus cash payout to them after words for their votes when the deal went through to get greater than 50% control. That didn’t work, and a number of employees (I was actually not one of them) leaked this to the local press to let everyone know what was going on. All such conversations were ‘off the record’ because talking to the press was a violation of their employee agreement and could have been a offense that got you fired, especially if the CEO had directed HR to do so. Perhaps that could be viewed as a wrongful termination issue, but who wants that headache? Clearly it was easier to sour the deal by letting the outside world know what was going on anonymously while still getting the message out there “hey, this little defense company is for sale, and is obviously worth buying because this other much larger company intends to buy them!” Sure enough, two years later, we were acquired by a large public company at a fair price and everyone was happy with that.

Hmmm. Perhaps you have confused me with someone else. I never said that. But good luck with whatever the rest of your message was trying to explain.

As was made clear to me by more than one person in public affairs, there’s no such thing as “off the record”. If you’re chatting with the press, there’s nothing to keep them from quoting you on everything you say if they decide their article is better with your name attached to it. I’ve seen enough behavior by the press that I don’t like talking to them at all.

They would also have to have decided that all their future articles are better without you or any of your friends as a source. That would be a crippling decision for a reporter to make in most cases.

Frankly, telling you “there’s no such thing as off-the-record” sounds like a design to discourage you from talking off-the-record, from somebody who has a pretty good idea of just how real and effective off-the-record can be.

It is. But that is the point of the above comments. It is only this decision that keeps comments un-attributed. Anyone making a comment needs to be aware that that decision is implicitly made with every off the record comment ever made. A reporter or editor that breaches confidentiality as a matter of course will very quickly lose all chance of ever hearing important stuff ever again, from anyone. But someone who divulges information that is so incendiary as to render anything they could ever say to the reporter again as irrelevant in comparison, will soon find out the nature of the decision.

As I noted above, making comments that you would never want anyone to hear you say, such as racial or sexual slurs, is a shortcut to being quoted in full for any politician. The mere fact that they said what they did is itself news.

You’re forgetting context. Virtually every career-damaging remark you’ve heard in your lifetime was made into a microphone or a public place or a meeting full of people who can confirm it. I defy you to name five incidents that occurred because a reporter violated a “off the record” agreement.

When you consider the number of off the record conversations that take place very year - certainly millions - and the number of times confidentiality is breached - almost never, reporters exhibit an astoundingly high percentage of ethical responsibility.

It’s interesting to note that reporters also expect sources to keep what the reporter said to them confidential. Congressman Darrell Issa is investigating whether his chief aide shared emails received from various reporters with another reporter who is writing a book about the political process. Politico’s editor, John Harris, complained about this alleged practice:

If I ever spoke with a reporter, it would never occur to me that the reporter would have any expectation of confidentiality in what he or she said to me, unless the reporter expressly asked me not to talk about it. I’m just a low-level government functionary who doesn’t ever deal with the press, though. I suppose a politician who has ongoing relationships with reporters might know of that expectation of confidentiality, and of course a political figure has an interest in not burning a reporter just like a reporter doesn’t want to burn a source.