Can a Listserv Be Off the Record?

By Jeffrey Goldberg

Andrew Klein writes in in reference to the matter of Dave Weigel:

I want to say first that I disagree with your assessment as it relates specifically to this scenario (as a young journalist myself, I do think there's way too much coddling going around); that being said, the following question is meant in earnest, not sarcasm: Why do you think the list serv in question is "semi-public" (your words) or "public" (your friend's words)? The guest list is a high water mark of masturbatory insider media, I'm sure, but it is in fact private and off the record. A place to vent and chat frankly and all that shit. Just because those involved are very public journalists doesn't make their own off the record remarks any less so.

I concede that journalists should be cautious when putting such frank thoughts to paper, electronic or otherwise. But for me that's not the bulk of the issue. Someone purposely took Dave's obvious off-the-record remarks and made them public. The moral equivalences are manifold, and without condoning what he said my first reaction was a big ol new media WTF. Not much is sacred anymore, but can we at least say that publishing off the record remarks, no matter how silly or ill advised, is the first issue, not the second?

The answer is simple and unfortunate: Nothing is really off-the-record. No conversation between more than two people is ever really off-the-record, and no e-mail is ever, ever off-the-record. It's just the way it is. I've been leaked postings from JournoList before -- wonderfully charming things written about me, as you might have guessed -- and I haven't had the opportunity to use them, but would be happy to if the need arose.  Why anyone would think that a listserv with 400 people is private is beyond me. It's McChrystal-level naivete. 

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2010/06/can-a-listserv-be-off-the-record/58765/