The Death of ‘Off-the-Record’

One of the very useful bits of education I had as a grad student were the frequent visits from politicians, other political actors, and journalists to small lunch seminars hosted by Nelson W. Polsby’s Institution of Governmental Studies. Some of them didn’t depart from their normal talking points, but most of them spoke reasonably openly. Many of them also spent the day hanging out in Nelson’s office, or stuck around for tea at the IGS later in the day. Some would also make guest appearances in undergrad classes, or otherwise share their time.

Again, some of them were basically a waste of time. And of course even when they were “candid” you wouldn’t want to take everything they said at face value. But we got a lot of good, partially revealing stories, a good way to get a sense of them individually, and cumulatively a good education in what politicians, national journalists, and political operatives were like.

If you’ve seen today’s news, you know where this is going. Frank Luntz — and regular readers know how much I dislike him, but I would have been happy to have him at an IGS noon seminar — was giving a talk to some students, asked that part of it be off the record, only to have a recording of it show up at Mother Jones today.

Did anyone do anything wrong? I don’t know. “Off the record” is, normally, an agreement between someone and reporters she’s speaking with. Are bystanders covered? I’d say anyone who was in the room and didn’t say anything was being dishonest to Luntz. How about Mother Jones? Given the very slight news value of the recording, I don’t know that it was worth running, but Mother Jones isn’t bound by someone else’s agreement.

The person who taped it, however, wasn’t primarily betraying Luntz. He was betraying his fellow students — and all fellow students. His actions, and the actions of anyone who does this sort of thing, make it impossible for public figures to speak candidly, or anything resembling candidly.

Now, it’s always been up to the judgement of the speaker in these sorts of situations to read the room and adjust. A large room full of undergrads is different than a couple dozen scholars and grad students. Evidently Luntz misread his audience here. But we want public figures to risk that sort of thing, and it’s really too bad when they get burned for it.

Of course, the stakes matter. It’s one thing to expose what a presidential candidate says to supporters behind closed doors; it’s quite another to expose something mildly embarrassing a political hack says.

Anyway, given the current technology, this sort of thing is probably inevitable. But it’s too bad. A real step in the wrong direction.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.