Peeling back the curtain a bit, I've had more than a few discussions with trusted sources over the past day or so about whether certain information imparted to me is on "deep background" -- meaning, to me, that it can be published and reported out so long as the source of the information is protected and not even referred to in a general sense -- or "Halperin/Heilemann" deep background, which, apparently, means that the information can be attributed directly to a source, who imparted the information "privately," months later, or when I write a book.
I don't write this to knock the authors of Game Change -- I genuinely do not know what their arrangements were with Senator Reid, and I know both of the men well enough to have faith that their motivations were genuine.
In the reporter/source Talmud, there are ostensibly four categories of information: On the Record, On Background, On Deep Background, Off the Record.
(This isn't the space to address the criticism that reporters and sources overuse these agreements, or are addicted to them, or don't serve the public well when they're entered into.)
Sources should always negotiate what these mean with specific reporters, but to me, on the record means on the record.
On background means, to me, that I can use information or a quote and attribute, as accurately as possible without disclosing the exact identity of the source. "A source with direct knowledge of James Fallows' itinerary confirms that he went to China last year."
On-background information is useful for the reporter and the reader because it allows the reporter to impart information but also try to make note of the source's particular point of view or bias.
Deep background, to me,
has always meant that
information can be conveyed -- but sourcelessly, so I am asking the
reader to take it finally on my own authority. Example: if a senior
Democratic official had told me that, as I reported earlier, the
Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee's IE team had just spent
$600,000 on an ad buy in Massachusetts, I could report that as fact
without sourcing it to anyone -- as long as I was confident it was
true. More precisely, as long as I am willing to have my own reputation
judged by whether it's true. (My source for that, incidentally, was
NOT a senior Democratic official.) For any matter of consequence,
information can't be stenographic. It's incumbent upon reporters to
it out thoroughly...to get second sources, to make sure that the stuff
From the perspective of a source, it allows them to impart information without leaving any fingerprints. The journalist has to be aware of this motivation and take it into account.
Off the record, to me, means off the record. Obviously, telling ANYTHING to a reporter entails the reality that the reporter's brain will record the information and use it, either to build to something else, or to keep in mind when figuring out what questions to ask.
My favorite off-the-record example to give is my learning, the DAY of the election in 2004, that Elizabeth Edwards had received a positive cancer diagnosis. For a variety of reasons, I agreed to keep this information off the record until the next day. Off the record, in that instance, meant precisely that. In addition to not writing or broadcasting the information, for me it includes an understanding that I will not talk to other people about it. Sometimes, off-the-record information is negotiated to include an embargo, and sometimes it isn't.
Confusion sets in, though, because some sources conflate "off the record" information with "deep background" information. Sources assume that talking to a reporter carries with it the implication that the reporter will use the information somehow. But off-the-record information can include information that really will never be published -- if, say, in the course of reporting about the attack on the CIA base in Khost, reporters learn the name of the chief of station in Afghanistan, and the CIA makes a convincing case that the name of the woman would, upon being published, jeopardize national security (and assuming reporters agree and are willing to abide by this request), then that information truly becomes off-the-record...segregated in one's mind from any writing endeavor.
So is there a fifth category? Often, sources enter into off the record agreements with reporters knowing full well that reporters are writing books....and that the information imparted to them will only be off the record until the book is published. I call this category "Off The Record 'Till The Book Is Published."
So under what rules was Harry Reid operating under when he gave an interview to one of the authors of Game Change? Perhaps he believed that the authors would use the information he was imparting but not quote him directly -- even though they would be permitted to attribute the information to him directly. In that case, perhaps Reid expected his conversation with the author to result in a sentence that said something like,
"Reid believed that America was ready for a black president, and it didn't hurt that Obama was lighter-skinned, or that he talked like a Harvard law professor."
Or "and that his appeal to a post-partisan, post-racial America was suited to his own bi-racial background and evident ability to operate in both black and white worlds."
Something like that.
In the book's"Authors' Note," they wrote: "All of our interviews -- from those with junior staffers to those with the candidates themselves -- were conducted on a 'deep background' basis, which means we agreed not to identify the subjects as sources in any way. We believed this was essential to eliciting the level of candor on which a book of this sort depends."
Heilemann said on MSNBC's "Morning Joe": "We had a very clear agreement with all those sources that our interviews would be on deep background. ... Our ground rules are ... that we won't identify any of our sources as the sources of the material. But we said to them all very clearly that if they put themselves in scenes of the book, if they were uttering dialogue to people in the book in part of a scene, that we would identify them as the utterer of those words."
Halperin added: "There's no one we talked to for the book who we burned in any way, or violated any agreement with."
Harry Reid's staff feels burned. A sophisticated political/candidate/staff operation would never knowingly allow this situation to develop.
But there does not seem to be any record of an agreement wherein NOTHING that Reid said couldn't subsequently be cross-referenced with other sources.
So it is possible that Reid said "Negro" to the authors in their private meeting -- but then also said it to someone else, which would make the authors' addition of the "privately" adverb less objectionable. I don't know. I've dealt with Reid's staff enough to know that they act honorably when it comes to sensitive information, and I believe they believe they were misled.
Bottom line: for some, it'll be:
never trust reporters. For others, it'll be: know explicitly the
ground rules before you impart information. Journalists' reputations
are on the line, but sources, particularly savvy sources who read the
Talmud, bear responsibility too.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.