What on earth did Time Warner Chairman Richard D. Parsons have in mind when he waited until the last minute to declare the Nov. 21 interview of Justice Antonin Scalia by Time Inc. Editor in Chief Norman Pearlstine before 100 journalists and businessmen at Time Warner's New York headquarters as "off the record"?
Did Parsons mean, as some define the phrase, that the information could be used but not attributed to the speakers? Or did he intend the ultra-literalist's meaning—that the information could not be used in any way? Whatever Parsons' intention, Daily News gossip columnist Lloyd Grove undid the ridiculous sourcing demand two days later with a column that sieved the talk for its news value and ridiculed the chairman of the media conglomerate that owns movie studios, an online service, cable news and entertainment channels, a TV broadcast network, and publishes 155 magazines, including Time, People, Sports Illustrated,and Fortune.
Grove—rightly—figured he wasn't obliged to honor Parsons' demands because those weren't the terms under which he was invited. Besides, Grove writes, "the place was crawling with journalists." Time Warner spokesman Edward I. Adler told the New York Timestoday (Nov. 28)that the company didn't expect complete silence from the press corps, expecting an "item or two" to get out, but that Grove "went too far, given the ground rules." This proves that Adler, whose company publishes those 155 magazines and owns CNN, either doesn't have any idea what off the record means, or doesn't care.
Lost in the dust-up was a discussion about why Parsons would impose any conditions, well-conceived or otherwise, on the invited audience. The obvious heavy would be Justice Scalia, who possesses a galvanic hostility to the press. But Scalia seems not to have protested Grove's column, and as Margaret Talbot tells us in her March 28, 2005, New Yorker profile, the justice has recently rehabilitated his press image. In 2004, he may have sanctioned the seizure of two tape recorders being used by reporters attending a speech of his, she writes, but in 2005 he agreed to C-span cameras at a public debate with another justice and approved the filming of a speech at Washington's Woodrow Wilson Center.
No, the onus is on Parsons for making sourcing demands that exceed those placed on Washington reporters by the government. As much as you may loathe State Department and White House background briefings, they're designed to disseminate the government's view, not block the circulation of information. Reporters are free to write about what they hear at background briefings as long as they attribute it to an agreed-upon unnamed government source ("senior administration official," for example). The idea behind attributing information to an unnamed source—and I'm not defending the practice—is that the viewpoint expressed belongs to the government, not the briefer.
As bad as this may be, it's better than the Parsons set-up. I'm assuming that because Parsons didn't tell the crowd who they could attribute Scalia's comments to—"a judicial employee," "a judge," "a judge on the Supreme Court," "a notorious hothead"—then "off the record" meant that the audience couldn't repeat anything they heard. If that's the case, what's the point of holding the session in the first place?
The Time Warner interview of Scalia differs from your average White House briefing in another way. A number of celebrities and hangers-on attended, according to the Nov. 23 New York Post, which also thumbed its nose at Parsons. The paper reported that the A-list attendees for the Scalia event included "Michael Eisner, Jack Valenti, Mike Wallace, Tina Brown, Harry Evans and Stanley Pottinger." Yes, yes, yes, Eisner and Valenti and Brown won't tell a soul what Scalia said. At least until they fire up their cell phones.
What possessed Time Warner—whose choice subsidiaries are in the business of getting Washington's most powerful minds on the record—to stage this farce?
For whose benefit was the interview conducted? Obviously not for reporters, who were barred from divulging its contents. As one in a series of talks that included Pearlstine interviews with Karl Rove and Bill Clinton, was the primary aim to increase Time magazine's "buzz"?
What businessmen were invited, and why? How many were advertisers or potential advertisers, whom Time Warner wanted to impress by arranging a private recital by one of Washington's hottest tickets?
I trust Grove to get the answers to these questions and more when he replaces Pearlstine in the interview series and confronts Richard D. Parsons in a wide-ranging, on the record discussion in front of 100 A-listers and journalists at Time Warner headquarters.
Addendum, Nov. 30: Champion-class busy-body Michael Petrelis decants the data on Parsons' campaign giving on his blog.
Hey, you! Yeah, you. This column is off the record. Send e-mail to email@example.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Unless the e-mail comes from anybody at Time Warner, in which case it will be rejected.)