Mixed Media: When There's No Such Thing as 'Off the Record'

General Stanley McChrystal
General Stanley McChrystal

Stanley McChrystal is a lifelong military man who most recently commanded all U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Dave Weigel is a journalist who most recently covered politics for the Washington Post. What do they have in common? Both were fired last week for saying things they never thought they'd have to answer for in public.

And both have defenders who say the exposure of those remarks, not the making of them, was the real wrongdoing. Was it?

McChrystal (pictured) was canned for a Rolling Stone profile that quoted him and his aides heaping contempt on President Obama and other members of the civilian government. Weigel was terminated for lambasting conservatives in a password-protected email forum used by liberal members of the press.


In both cases, the men, far from naive about the workings of the media, nevertheless expressed themselves incautiously in the apparent belief that it was safe to do so. McChrystal's supporters say Rolling Stone's writer, Michael Hastings, quoted from sessions he had agreed to treat as off the record, a claim Hastings disputes. Weigel's sympathizers -- including his now-ex-colleague, Ezra Klein, creator of the email listserv that was his undoing -- say he was just airing his private opinions, which reporters are allowed to have, in what he reasonably considered a private setting.

We can all agree that violating prenegotiated ground rules for an interview is sleazy, and leaking private email threads, even group threads, is also questionable.

But some critics are taking it even farther. New York Times columnist David Brooks says soldiers need to "blow off steam, sometimes in the crudest possible terms," and ought to be allowed to do so without fear of repercussion. CBS's Lara Logan says Hastings betrayed the confidence of the soldiers he interviewed by lulling them into thinking of him as a friend, thereby making it hard for other military reporters to do their jobs in the future. Both argue, essentially, that Hastings should have unilaterally decided to treat damaging material as off the record, even if it wasn't.

Ignoring Reality

But to make that argument ignores, for starters, Hastings' responsibility to Rolling Stone, which paid thousands of dollars to fly him around the world for the story in the expectation that he would publish the best, juiciest stuff he gathered, not sit on it. That argument also ignores Hastings' responsibility to his readers, for whom he's acting as a surrogate witness. Above all, it ignores the current reality of the media world.

Brooks wasn't wrong about one thing: The proliferation of media outlets and the blurring of the line between reader and journalist make it inevitable that much information that might, in an earlier age, have stayed private will now get dragged into public sooner or later. Too many reporters and would-be reporters are out there to let any table scraps fall to the floor. Fifty years ago, political reporters helped hush up rumors that America's president was sleeping with some of the most famous women in the world. Today, a former vice president is accused of getting grabby with a masseuse, and it's national news.

Journalists who sit on explosive allegations or incendiary quotes know they're in danger of getting not just scooped but embarrassed, as happened to all the reporters who ignored tips about John Edwards' affair with Rielle Hunter. That fear has affected the news judgment of every news organization, right up to The New York Times, which rushed into print a half-baked article about John McCain's suspected dalliance with a lobbyist for no better reason than to beat the Washington Post on it.

A Journalists' Cartel?

Of course, journalists need to exercise responsibility. Not every rumor is worth repeating, and sometimes the right thing to do is not to publish, even if it means getting scooped and accused of playing the patsy. But critics like Brooks and Logan want reporters to act like a cartel, deciding as a group how much product to release onto the market.

t doesn't work like that. Cartels can function only by limiting their membership. When anyone with a Twitter account can be a journalist, the cartel is officially busted.