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LAST WEEK Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Joseph S. Nye--until early this year professor of Government here--returned to Cambridge to talk about arms control in the Carter Administration at the Center for International Affairs. There were signs up in various places inviting interested persons to attend with no restrictions on the general public. Newspapers in the area were notified of Nye's talk.
Whatever valuable insights on the issue of nuclear proliferation were to be gained from listening to Nye, they will be confined to the minds of those 100 students, professors and journalists who were energetic enough to strike out on that dull, misty afternoon in pursuit of a little self-edification.
For although Nye spoke as a public official about a public policy that is directed by an elected official, no account of his talk appeared in any paper the next day. No one learned a little something about the nuances of diplomacy over coffee and donuts. Actually, the reason for this "blackout" of Nye's talk was quite simple. Nye--who like most human beings is ambitious and probably fears the fate of being misinterpreted and appearing foolish in the press--announced quietly before his speech that everything he would say was to remain "off-the-record" and not reported in any newspaper in any way. Accordingly, the journalists in the room, feeling some vague sense of obligation and ethical responsibility, wrote nary a word for the next day's paper.
This event highlights some interesting questions about the nature of the ill-defined tool used to suppress information called "off-the-record." How has it come to pass that journalists--whose first obligation has always been the dissemination of information--suddenly seem to believe that people have some kind of inalienable right not to be quoted?
Consider the original purpose which the off-the-record device was designed to serve, namely to better inform the reader. For instance, a reporter investigating a story might encounter a valuable source who is willing to give the reporter information, but only for the reporter's education, not for printing. The reporter decides that this so-called "background information"--though certainly not as good as usable, attributable information--is better than nothing, and he makes a verbal contract with his source not to print what his source tells him in exchange for the information.
The glue that holds the contract together lies in the realization by the reporter that he is dependent on the good will of his source to better serve his readers in the long run. If he violates the contract, he could well end up alienating a vital source. This contract is not legally binding; it is simply an informal pact.
Our imaginary reporter takes a negative view toward such agreements. After all, this quite clearly amounts to the suppression of information. If the matter is one which the reader should be informed about, then the whole affair is tainted with the bete noire of journalism--secrecy.
But this is quite a different picture. The obsequious journalists who so readily assumed that Nye's request was legitimate seem to have little in common with the hard-nosed reporter who only as a last resort stubbornly strikes up a contractual agreement not to print all he knows about a story--in return for additional information. How has this change come about?
MANY REPORTERS have forgotten the utilitarian motive of the off-the-record tool and wind up confusing the ends with the means. Until some sort of agreement is struck between the reporter and the source, a person doesn't have a "right" not to be quoted. If you don't want it in the press, don't say it. The reporter's first priority is to inform the reader of what is going on in the world; portecting his sources remains a secondary consideration. Only when the latter aids the former should the reporter start worrying about whom to quote and whom not to quote.
But an even graver danger here has emerged than that of journalists simply confusing their duties when confronting intimidating speakers. Many journalists have begun to reassess their roles. This new role permits the deliberate cooperation of journalists with elites to suppress information which they believe is too controversial for the average reader to react sensibly to. The emphasis shifts from reporting the news to sifting the news. These journalists see themselves in a position to responsibly cooperate with powerful officials to makes sure the masses never learn too much about policies the public might object to, but which are, nevertheless, for their own good.
It is very questionable whether journalists should see themselves as a benevolent elite responsible for conveying the "right" news to the public. When reporters do agree to keep things off-the-record because they believe a beneficial policy might be undermined if it receives too much or too little publicity, they should realize tha such a decision carries profound implications.
The off-the-record tool which journalists have traditionally used unwillingly and only as a last resort (at least in the age of adversary journalism) is being effectively manipulated by public officials devoted to the secrecy ethic in government. If people like Joseph Nye are not willing to communicate with the members of the Harvard community via the press, then they should never have accepted their posts.
Alfred Friendly, former managing editor of the Washington Post, issued a memo to his entire newspaper staff in July, 1958 in an effort to clear up misunderstandings about who could and who could not be quoted. Friendly wrote.
In a public meetings or gathering, open to all without specific invitation, any attempt by a speaker to put all or part of his remarks off the record may be firmly and blandly ignored as an absurdity. In a large gathering--say 20 persons or more--but sponsored by a private organization, club, committee or the like, where the reporter is present in his role as a reporter but also as an invited guest, he must protest vigorously any attempt by a speaker to go off the record. He should point out that the meeting was scheduled as open to the press, that any attempt at secrecy with a group that large is manifestly meaningless, ineffective, nonsensical, etc., and should declare he will not be bound by the limitation. If he is then requested to leave, he will do so.
UNFORTUNATELY, journalists today seem less vigorous in insisting that speakers stay on the record. Earlier this week when Rep. Thomas P. students in the Reid S. Tonkins Room at Winthrop House and reuested that reporters not quote him, a student journalist from The Crimson interrupted and asked O'Neill what the Speaker of the House of Representaties had to tell those students about the American government that the American people should not know.
It was an all too timely question.
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