This strange story broke yesterday and Allahpundit already went over most of the details. In case you missed it, we’re talking about reports that the New York Times is sitting on a video of Donald Trump, taken during an editorial board meeting, where he supposedly said something about immigration policy which could shake up the campaign. (For the record, I tend to agree with AP’s prediction that it won’t deliver much of a punch if it comes out.) But there’s another, seriously disturbing angle to this story which doesn’t seem to be driving much of the ongoing discussion. Let’s go back and look at part of the Buzzfeed article which kicked this off.
Trump visited the paper’s Manhattan headquarters on Tuesday, Jan. 5, as part of a round of editorial board meetings that — as is traditional — the Democratic candidates for president and some of the Republicans attended. The meetings, conducted partly on the record and partly off the record in a 13th-floor conference room, give candidates a chance to make their pitch for the paper’s endorsement.
After a dispute over Trump’s suggestion of tariffs on Chinese goods, the Times released a portion of the recording. But that was from the on-the-record part of the session…
Sources familiar with the recording and transcript — which have reached near-mythical status at the Times — tell me that the second sentence is a bit more than speculation. It reflects, instead, something Trump said about the flexibility of his hardline anti-immigration stance.
What Donald Trump said about immigration or the wall or deportations doesn’t matter much at this point. The real question which needs to be addressed is… why do we know about this? Your first response may be to say that we demand transparency of our candidates and Trump should immediately give the Times permission to release the video. Fair enough. That’s the reality of the political chess board as it stands today. But in the recent past, something went very wrong to bring us to this point.
In the course of my normal work duties I talk to a number of people in politics… candidates, office holders, staffers and others involved in governmental affairs. In the past I’ve been on the other side of the equation, working as a communications director in political campaigns, and I had to talk to the media frequently. When any of these conversations take place they generally fall into one of four categories which everyone in this business understands: On the record, off the record, on background or deep background. (You can see the Associated Press definitions of these terms here if you’re not familiar with them.) They’re pretty much what the names imply. On the record conversations may be published with full attribution to the speaker. The two levels of background conversations can be referenced in publications, but the source is either not identified at all or is referred to vaguely. (e.g. “a source close to the Senator’s office” or “a person familiar with the committee hearings.”) Off the record conversations are precisely that. They are not to be printed or referenced. These are generally comments which the subject will make which allow the reporter to have a better understanding of the background behind the story or to frame it in a relatable context. But in any event, when the reporter agrees that comments are off the record, the subject is assured that the content will not be revealed. It’s a covenant which has been around pretty much forever and it keeps the Fourth Estate in business.
Somebody at the New York times broke that rule. They may not have released the the actual video, but they told the story of the existence of the video and gave very strong indications of the specifics of what was inside. If somebody told me off the record about a married candidate who was having an affair with another woman and had been out snorting cocaine with her, I might go investigate and see if I could come up with any usable witnesses or other confirmation. What I couldn’t do would be to print an article saying that the some information existed talking about the candidate in a compromising situation with a young lady and the possibility of some illicit substances being involved. That’s pretty much letting the cat out of the bag even if I didn’t give names, places, and times.
I don’t know who the person is at the New York Times who was talking out of school, but somebody over there broke the rules. The other candidates (and everyone else in any position to ever be of interest to the media) should be aware that the Times is no longer playing by the rules and monitor what they say to their editorial board or reporters accordingly.