Why Samantha Power couldn't take back her monstrous gaffe.

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March 10 2008 6:43 PM

How Do You Go Off the Record?

Why Samantha Power couldn't take back her monstrous gaffe.

Samantha Power
Samantha Power

Samantha Power stepped down from her position as Barack Obama's foreign-policy adviser Friday, after she was quoted in the Scotsman calling Hillary Clinton "a monster, too—that is off the record—she is stooping to anything." Although Power tried to retract her comment midsentence, the paper published the quote as a headline. How do you go off the record with a journalist?

Ask to go off the record, discuss what that means, and don't reveal any secrets until the journalist has agreed to the understanding. The same basic guidelines would apply with most reporters, but there are no rigid and universal rules; in the end, it always comes down to individual judgment. The New York Times style guide talks about the attribution of information and granting of anonymity—i.e., how to accurately present the information and sources you have—but doesn't issue specific advice for how to negotiate with a source by going off the record. Neither does the Scotsman have any written rules on the subject.

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Both parties—reporters and their sources—should agree to going off (or back on) record in advance. It's also important to spell out the terms; this Slate "Chatterbox" column showed how even reporters at the same paper interpret the rules for "off the record" differently. Same for sources: Scooter Libby, for instance, often said "off the record" when he meant "on background." The talk can take place before an interview starts and then be quickly rehashed—"Can we go off the record now?"  "Yes."—when the source is about to make the sensitive comments. In that sense, Power would have been on less-shaky ground had she switched the order of her words and said, "This is off the record—she is a monster, too," instead of, "She is a monster, too—that is off the record." Sometimes a reporter will ask about the nature of the information before proceeding or stop to consult with an editor.

Decisions about how to apply off-the-record standing, especially when it comes to sensitive areas like presidential politics, are often negotiated on a case-by-case, source-by-source basis. The more important a story or source, the more carefully both parties stick to the rules. But the Power quote falls into a gray area for some reporters. For instance, what happens if the source declares she's going off the record and doesn't wait for confirmation from the reporter before blurting out something important? Some journalists would keep it off the record, while others would refuse; either way, they'll probably try to negotiate with the source to restate the information for the record. Ideally, a reporter ought to stop the conversation before anything is said.

Can a source take back something that was accidentally said on the record? No, in most cases, but it's ultimately a matter of opinion. Some editors may argue that since Power tried to go off record midsentence, it was essentially the same as if she had made the request before calling Clinton a monster. There's also leeway given to trusted sources and to people who aren't used to speaking with the media or are under intense pressure—say, a parent whose child was just in an accident or an illegal immigrant talking about her employment status. A public figure like Samantha Power, who represented a presidential candidate, however, might be expected to know the rules.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Naftali Bendavid of the Chicago Tribune, Roy Peter Clark and Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute, Mike Gilson of the Scotsman, and Craig Whitney of the New York Times.

Michelle Tsai is a Beijing-based writer working on a book about Chinatowns on six continents. She blogs at ChinatownStories.com.