Monday, February 04, 2008

"Sound Bites On A Plane": A 'Hippocratic Oath' Between Candidates and Journalists?

Jim Rutenberg, in today's "Sound Bites On A Plane" from the NYT Caucus Blog:

On the Clinton plane, the issue arose Saturday when a group of reporters– including Patrick Healy of The New York Times - told her press staff that they no longer felt comfortable allowing Mrs. Clinton to wander back and speak with them on an off-the-record basis.

The issue came up again in the evening, when campaign aides offered to bring Chelsea Clinton back to speak with reporters – an unusual offer of access to the once-cloistered, former first daughter – but only if they agreed not to report about her visit. (After lengthy debate, the wee hours, the Chelsea Clinton interview would not come to be).

And on the Obama plane, it was the candidate himself who tried to wander back for some unscripted, off-the-record schmoozing on Saturday.

As reported in this dispatch from the Chicago Tribune, Mr. Obama walked back to say “hello” to one of the elder statesmen of the political press corps, Dan Balz of The Washington Post. When the inevitable scrum gathered around the two, the assembled reporters – including Jeff Zeleny of The New York Times — overcame Mr. Obama’s protestations that he had not come back with the intention of being quoted.

No one can begrudge candidates their attempts to gain advantage, by "flying under the radar" to nudge, flatter, and otherwise influence journalists in this way, particularly when, as California tightens and Tuesday nears, every softened barb, each slightly kinder adjective may count. And one could understand the desire of a reporter to gain professional advantage, or at least a moment of personal favor, by quoting an off-the-record contact--or by demanding an on-the-record one.

A reverse commitment of the doctor's pledge to confidentiality also exists here--the fundamental job of a a reporter is exactly that--to report. Candidates should not be able to tactically define the reality of what is "reportable" any more than journalists should selectively report that reality based upon the seductions professional or personal advantage.

Although the motives of journalist demands for on-the-record access many not always be so noble--pure on-the-record access makes a slip, a novel lede, and, ultimately, a met deadline more likely, one can also understand that reporters would not want to be massaged and manipulated in this manner, allowing candidates to have it both ways. The doctor-patient relationship requires confidentiality and trust--a compact, inherent in the commitment to "do no harm", that what is said between them will go unreported. In the candidate-journalist relationship, the candidate cannot expect to be able to attempt to prod, shape and create the news--without the journalist naming its source.

-Dr. Alan J. Lipman