Off the record

Post Defends Anonymous Sourcing of Pushback Article Against Rolling Stone

The Washington Post defends the article that allowed anonymous allies of Gen. McChrystal to attack the integrity of Rolling Stone and its writer Michael Hastings.

“The sources would only allow us to use the material on condition of anonymity,” Post National Security editor Cameron Barr told Yahoo! News. “Given the significant impact of the Rolling Stone story, we felt the public’s interest in seeing what military officials had to say about how it was reported and fact-checked was greater than in keeping that information to ourselves because the officials wouldn’t come on the record,” Barr continued. “We independently contacted several sources for the story.”

…Barr explained that “the story went through changes throughout [the] day as we added reporting to it that made the piece more comprehensive,” adding that the Post will “often revise webfiles for the paper.” The A1 print story included some additional reporting, such as when McChrystal first learned the details of the Rolling Stone story. However, it still included no on-the-record sources making the charge that Hastings used off-the-record materials or details to back up the allegation.

Still sounds like a bad call by The Post.

‘Dirty Little Secret’

Former CNN Pentagon reporter Jamie McIntyre on the difference between Michael Hastings Rolling Stone report on Gen. McChrystal and the MSM beat reporter’s approach (from “On the Media”)

JAMIE McINTYRE: Well, the difference is the sort of one-off reporter doesn’t need to worry about whether he’s going to get future access or not, whereas the beat reporters, like when I was at CNN, I needed access; I needed to be able to get to the key people to find out what was going on when bombs were dropping or things were happening.

And the way you do that is you forego reporting all of the sort of off-color jokes or informal banter that goes on when you follow these guys around, focus on the big picture, and they begin to trust you. As a result, when you need to know what’s going on, you get access.

If you do what Michael Hastings does, they’re never going to talk to him again. Of course, he — he doesn’t care. The fallout from that though is that they may also not talk to a lot of other reporters, as well.

BOB GARFIELD: Not reporting the off-color jokes, the intemperate comments and so forth, you call that the dirty little secret of beat reporting.

JAMIE McINTYRE: You know, it implies this sort of overly cozy relationship. These military officials that we’re following around, they’re not our friends. We’re frenemies, we’re not friends. You know, one thing we’ve learned from this whole episode is that military officers cannot tell you what they’re really thinking without being in peril of losing their jobs.

So the dirty little secret is yeah, we sort of informally agree not to report a lot of things that we see and hear, some of it for legitimate security reasons, and some of it because it could just be embarrassing. And the tradeoff is we get a continued relationship with these people and we can get information.

And by the way, it is information that we can still hold them accountable for, it’s just that we sort of cover them.

Post Allows Anonymous McChrystal Aides to Impugn Rolling Stone

This appears to me to be a flagrant misuse of anonymous sources.  Credit The Post for not trying to make a lame excuse as to why it allowed anonymous McChrystal aides to impugn the integrity of Michael Hastings, who wrote the notorious article that led to the general losing his command and probably his career.  But the fact that the Post allowed anonymous sources to attack Hastings and his editors is unconscionable:

[O]fficials close to McChrystal began trying to salvage his reputation by asserting that the author, Michael Hastings, quoted the general and his staff in conversations that he was allowed to witness but not report.

A senior military official insisted that "many of the sessions were off-the-record and intended to give [Hastings] a sense" of how the team operated. The command’s own review of events, said the official, who was unwilling to speak on the record, found "no evidence to suggest" that any of the "salacious political quotes" in the article were made in situations in which ground rules permitted Hastings to use the material in his story.

A member of McChrystal’s team who was present for a celebration of McChrystal’s 33rd wedding anniversary at a Paris bar said it was "clearly off the record." Aides "made it very clear to Michael: ‘This is private time. These are guys who don’t get to see their wives a lot. This is us together. If you stay, you have to understand this is off the record,’ " according to this source. In the story, the team members are portrayed as drinking heavily.

Officials also questioned Rolling Stone’s fact-checking process, as described by [Rolling Stone executive editor Eric] Bates in an interview this week with Politico. "We ran everything by them in a fact-checking process as we always do," Bates said. "They had a sense of what was coming, and it was all on the record, and they spent a lot of time with our reporter, so I think they knew that they had said it."

These anonymous sources even provided copies of emails between a Rolling Stone fact-checker and McChrystal media aide. 

In my view, there is no reason for this article at all except to allow anonymous allies of the general to strike back—without bearing any responsibility for their attacks.  It’s as if the newspaper said, “We’ll do your dirty work for you.”

That The Post  allowed this reinforces the point Politico made in an earlier post subsequently scrubbed of the inside baseball admission.  The point was an admission that what made Hastings’ story so dramatic was that usually reporters hold back things they hear that might destroy their relationship with the institutions they cover.  In other words, we can’t trust what the Post  or other newspapers tell us because reporters and editors don’t want to upset their cozy relationship with the people they cover.

A Call for Brauchli to Resign

As Washington Post editor Marcus Brauchli tries to minimize the damage from the salon affairs, calls are beginning for his departure.

As managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, he had allowed Rupert Murdoch, the paper’s new owner, to push him around — and ultimately out the door — in contravention of the editorial-independence framework that the News Corp. (NWS) owner had agreed to. Rather than sound the alarm, Brauchli held his tongue, his amiable silence purchased by $3 million (or more) of Murdoch’s money.

…This is serious. This isn’t about journalistic judgment; it’s about integrity. Brauchli was given a chance to take responsibility, and he responded by falling back on the exact sort of obfuscation and hair-splitting that newspapers like his exist to demolish. And he’s still doing it: In a chat with Post readers today, Brauchli faulted himself for failing to see to it that the salons were marketed correctly, but said nothing about his own role in propagating the "misunderstanding." No doubt he’s a fine journalist in many regards, but the top editor of an institution like The Washington Post — one of a handful of great American newspapers, and the first line of defense against government perfidy — has to be more than just a fine journalist. He has to be a paragon.

Brauchli will probably survive this episode, if only because his boss, at whose pleasure he serves, shares his culpability. But he should offer his resignation.

What Does Off-the Record Mean?

What we say it means, seems to be the answer from Marcus Brauchli, editor of The Washington Post, who was challenged today in his online chat about what he knew, when he knew it and how does he describe what he knew in connection with the flap that continues to haunt The Post.

When the political paper of record was caught selling access for anonymity, Brauchli tried to claim ignorance.  He said at the time that he didn’t know the salon sessions (pronounced sa-lahn se-shahn, I presume) were “off the record.”  According to a “correction” at the New York Times, he did.

On Sept. 12, an article in The Times reported that Charles Pelton, the marketing executive at the center of the plans, had resigned from The Post. That article, referring again to Mr. Brauchli’s comments at the time, reported that he said he had not understood that the dinners would be off the record.

However, in a subsequent letter to Mr. Pelton — which was sent to The Times by Mr. Pelton’s lawyer — Mr. Brauchli now says that he did indeed know that the dinners were being promoted as “off the record,” and that he and Mr. Pelton had discussed that issue.

During an online discussion, a reader took him to task, accusing Brauchli of lying.  Brauchli objected to that characterization.

When these events were planned, we intended that the information from them would inform and shape our coverage, without attribution. That is not, under our rules, off the record. They were later promoted as "off the record," and I knew that before July 2. As I have said repeatedly since then, I failed to reconcile the language and the intentions, which I should have done. The notion that I lied to the New York Times "hoping not to get caught" is absurd.

What does “information from them would inform and shape our coverage, without attribution” mean?  Off the record, I think most journalists would agree, is that which can inform the coverage but without informing us.  In other words, when information is given off the record you can’t give that information to readers, whether you identify the source or not. But certainly if a reporter believes the information to be true, she is not going to write something that contradicts it.  Rather, most reporters will use that information to get other sources to corroborate it on the record.

Brauchli seems to be splitting hairs.  I’ll look forward to hearing others’ views on this.