Information Wants to Be Free

I'm not going to comment much on my employer's salons except to say that I've been to them, and there's no scandal there.  At the paid ones, where the journalists talk, the journalists dictate what we say, and the sponsors are told they have no control.  At the unpaid salons, it's--well, it's an off the record briefing, of the sort that every other journalist is well familiar with.  Either way, I've never said or done anything that I wouldn't say at a regular interview, and neither have the other journalists.

But this Jack Shafer article is just silly.  Off the record conversations allow journalists to get much deeper understanding of what's going on. That's why journalists talking to their friends about their jobs at companies of interest to the journalist talk off the record.  I'm sure that Jack Shafer has done this, or else he doesn't have any friends in the media.

Now, there are journalists that get carried away with the excitement of an off-the-record conversation.  Subjects can lie just as easily off the record as on it.  But it's absurd to say that the only worthwhile conversations between journalists and the powerful are on the record.  Off the record conversations allow politicians to say things that they cannot say publicly because the Fed Chairman or the Secretary of State or the Schools Chancellor cannot be seen to say certain things as they are trying to affect outcomes--they are, as the economists like to say, endogenous to the system.  Restricting their ability to explain things off the record would restrict the supply of information available, not expand it.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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