The most interesting part of the controversy over Obama advisor Samantha Power's referring to Hillary Clinton as a "monster" -- one might say the only interesting part -- is that immediately after Power said it, she tried to proclaim that it was "off the record." Here was Power's exact quote:
She is a monster, too -- that is off the record -- she is stooping to anything.
But the reporter who was interviewing her, Britain's Gerri Peev of The Scotsman, printed the comment anyway -- as she should have, because Peev had never agreed that any parts of the interview would be "off the record," and nobody has the right to demand unilaterally, and after the fact, that journalists keep their embarrassing remarks a secret. It's extremely likely, though, that had Power been speaking to a typical reporter from the American establishment media, her request to keep her comments a secret would have been honored. In one of the ultimate paradoxes, for American journalists -- whose role in theory is to expose the secrets of the powerful -- secrecy is actually their central religious tenet, especially when it comes to dealing with the most powerful. Protecting, rather than exposing, the secrets of the powerful is the fuel of American journalism. That's how they maintain their access to and good relations with those in power.
Illustrating that point as vividly as anything I can recall, MSNBC's Tucker Carlson had Peev on his show last night and angrily criticized her publication of Power's remarks. Carlson upbraided Peev for her lack of deference to someone as important as Power, and Peev retorted by pointing out exactly what that attitude reflects about Carlson and the American press generally (via LEXIS; h/t Mike Stark):
CARLSON: What -- she wanted it off the record. Typically, the arrangement is if someone you're interviewing wants a quote off the record, you give it to them off the record. Why didn't you do that?
PEEV: Are you really that acquiescent in the United States? In the United Kingdom, journalists believe that on or off the record is a principle that's decided ahead of the interview. If a figure in public life.
PEEV: Someone who's ostensibly going to be an advisor to the man who could be the most powerful politician in the world, if she makes a comment and decides it's a bit too controversial and wants to withdraw it immediately after, unfortunately if the interview is on the record, it has to go ahead.
CARLSON: Right. Well, it's a little.
PEEV: I didn't set out in any way, shape.
CARLSON: Right. But I mean, since journalistic standards in Great Britain are so much dramatically lower than they are here, it's a little much being lectured on journalistic ethics by a reporter from the "Scotsman," but I wonder if you could just explain what you think the effect is on the relationship between the press and the powerful. People don't talk to you when you go out of your way to hurt them as you did in this piece.
Don't you think that hurts the rest of us in our effort to get to the truth from the principals in these campaigns?
PEEV: If this is the first time that candid remarks have been published about what one campaign team thinks of the other candidate, then I would argue that your journalists aren't doing a very good job of getting to the truth. Now I did not go out of my way in any way, shape or form to hurt Miss Power. I believe she's an intelligent and perfectly affable woman. In fact, she's -- she is incredibly intelligent so she -- who knows she may have known what she was doing.
She regretted it. She probably acted with integrity. It's not for me to decide one way or the other whether she did the right thing. But I did not go out and try to end her career.
Credit to Tucker Carlson for being so (unintentionally) candid about the lowly, subservient role of the American press with regard to "the relationship between the press and the powerful." A journalist should never do anything that "hurts" the powerful, otherwise the powerful won't give access to the press any longer. Presumably, the press should only do things that please the powerful so that the powerful keep talking to the press, so that the press in turn can keep pleasing the powerful, in an endless, symbiotic, mutually beneficial cycle. Rarely does someone who plays the role of a "journalist" on TV so candidly describe their real function. For anyone who wants to dismiss Carlson as some buffoon who is unrepresentative of journalists generally, I would refer them to the testimony at the Lewis Libby trial of the mighty, revered Tim Russert, Washington Bureau Chief for NBC News:
When I talk to senior government officials on the phone, it's my own policy -- our conversations are confidential. If I want to use anything from that conversation, then I will ask permission.
As The Washington Post's Dan Froomkin put it: "That's not reporting, that's enabling. That's how you treat your friends when you're having an innocent chat, not the people you're supposed to be holding accountable." Unlike Carlson, Tim Russert is the Big Guy of the American press corps. He's the one they all look up to and admire, the one they invariably point to as proof that tough, adversarial journalism is alive and well in the U.S. Yet that's the same Tim Russert who admitted under oath that -- even with no "off the record" agreement -- all of his conversations with government officials are presumptively confidential, and he never reports anything unless they give him explicit permission in advance to do so.
It's the same exact subservient mindset Carlson expressed last night, just more formally and under oath. That's how the vast majority of them think and behave. As Peev asked in astonishment when Carlson insisted Power's comments should not have been published because doing "hurtful" things like that that makes the powerful dislike reporters: "Are you really that acquiescent in the United States?" See the Iraq War. Or the Bush administration. Or Tim Russert's operating rules.
I just had a very similar issue arise last week, and not for the first time. In response to media criticism I wrote, a well-known journalist emailed me out of the blue, unsolicited, with very petulant, whiny objections to what I had written. At the top of his email, he wrote "OFF THE RECORD," and he did the same with a subsequent exchange. I had never communicated with him before and never agreed to any such arrangement. But that's a common practice among journalists and many political figures; they think that they can unilaterally slap an "off the record" label on whatever they say and expect that it will be honored.
I ended up not publishing that exchange solely because the probative value was minimal and the primary effect from doing so would just have been to make him look foolish for being so petulant and thin-skinned. Publishing it would have been more vindictive and petty than instructive, so I didn't. But his unilateral "OFF THE RECORD" designation played no role in my decision.
I considered publishing it, and I am certain that had I done so, he would have accused me of acting improperly by publishing something he unilaterally decreed to be "OFF THE RECORD." Just as Russert and Carlson said, rampant secrecy is the coin of their realm, the fuel that greases their access. Nothing should ever be disclosed unless everyone agrees to disclosure and it doesn't "hurt" the person whose comments are being reported.
The number one rule of the standard establishment journalist is to avoid offending the powerful because the more offense they give, the fewer favors the powerful will do for the journalists. Conversely, and by logical necessity, the more journalists please the powerful, the more favors the powerful will do for them. As Carlson put it: "People don't talk to you when you go out of your way to hurt them as you did." I can't think of any single dynamic that better explains what has happened the last eight years than that one.
* * * * *
As for Carlson's snide, self-loving claim that "journalistic standards in Great Britain are so much dramatically lower than they are here," just watch this relentlessly probing, adversarial interview by the BBC's Jeremy Paxman of John Bolton regarding the Bush administration's invasion and occupation of Iraq, and ask yourself: how many American TV reporters would ever dare to conduct an interview of a high Bush official like this, especially when it's with a Serious Foreign Policy Expert regarding our being a Nation At War?
Glenn Greenwald writes a regular blog column for Salon.com. His most recent book is A Tragic Legacy.
© 2008 Salon.com