A day after Rolling Stone Magazine published an explosive profile of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, featuring raw comments and salty language, a sort of self-generated audit of Washington's journalistic conventions took off inside the Beltway.
One phrase in the piece, written by freelancer Michael Hastings, captured its tone and triggered this rare self-examination: An unnamed McChrystal staffer referred to Vice President Joe Biden, the man a heartbeat away from being his commander-in-chief, as Joe "Bite Me." It was offensive to official Washington, not for its substance, but for its ham-handed execution.
Sure, we talk like that all the time among ourselves, veteran insiders told one another. But how in the world did that stuff get into print? How, especially, did McChrystal let himself get connected to some of that language? And, oh, by the way, since when did it become okay to use cheap shot, schoolyard barbs uttered by unidentified and unaccountable mid-level staffers to disparage the McChrystals and Bidens of the world?
Ari Fleischer, who navigated the White House press operation under President George W. Bush, called McChrystal's public relations staff amateurish. Hastings' most explosive material, crammed into the initial paragraphs of a fairly insightful 8-page profile of McChrystal, came out of informal moments and, apparently at least one alcohol-fueled night out. "They forgot he was a reporter," Fleisher said. "You don't know how deeply it offends me as a public relations professional to allow a reporter that kind of access. It wasn't reporting. That was eavesdropping."
Washington officials and the reporters who cover them employ a semi-formal system to regulate the way information is sourced.
Pete Williams has been on both sides of this ongoing negotiation between journalists and public officials. He's currently the network correspondent covering the Justice Department and Supreme Court for NBC News. He was the Pentagon spokesman during the First Gulf War.
Here's how he defines the glossary of terms that unofficially govern the flow of information to the media in Washington:
- "There is 'On The Record.' Quoting verbatim with attribution: 'Santa Claus is a fraud,' said Pete Williams."
- "There is 'On Background.' You can use the information without attribution, or with generic attribution: 'Santa Claus is a fraud,' said a network correspondent."
- "There is 'Off The Record.' You know it, you can shop it around, act on it, but you can't report it, until you get it somewhere else."
- "Where the thing begins to get hazy is around the idea of Deep Background, the shadowy territory between On Background and Off The Record: 'NBC News has learned that some network correspondents think Santa Claus is a fraud.'"
Robert Gibbs, President Barack Obama's sharp-tongued press secretary, says he consciously avoids the hazy middle ground Williams describes. Gibbs said he speaks to reporters using three guidelines: On The Record, On Background and Off The Record: "Any gradation" starts getting you into trouble. 'Deep Background' puts rules into place that leave it too much to the ear of the reporter."
Chuckling, Gibbs cites one exception to his own rules: "I'll use 'Way, Way, Way Off The Record' if I don't want that reporter to even act upon the tip."
But the framework Williams and Gibbs describe is clearly not hard and fast. The terms differ from reporter to reporter and source to source. Because of that, says our NBC News standards umpire David McCormick, the terms themselves don't matter: "What's most important is that the journalist and the source clearly understand what the agreement IS, no matter what it is called."
Williams, Fleischer, and Gibbs all say their practices reflect some version of that principle. "I will generally make sure my definition is the same as the reporter," Gibbs said. As a spokesman, Williams said, he made certain the terms were clearly defined before the conversation began.
Immediately after the Rolling Stone story first appeared online, which ended up costing McChrystal is job, Hastings was being quizzed about the terms of his agreement with the general and his staff. Here's what he told Newsweek:
"It was crystal-clear to me, and I was walking around with a tape recorder and notepad in my hand three-quarters of the time. I didn't have the Matt Drudge press hat on, but everything short of that it was pretty obvious that I was a reporter writing a profile of the general for Rolling Stone. It was always very clear."
Except that's not very clear at all.
Almost all of what Hastings said appears to be based on the idea that HIS assumptions were shared by McChrystal and his staff. What seems clear in retrospect is that the agreement was vague enough that Hastings was free to interpret it to his journalistic advantage.
Hastings declined through a spokesperson to answer our questions about the terms of his McChrystal interview or the broader issue of how Washington officials and journalists manage the issue of attribution.
How these things are interpreted, in the rough-and-tumble environment of a pluralistic democracy governed by an entrenched bureaucracy and covered by a commercially-driven free press, often comes down to the experience and maturity of the individual players.
There is a significant down side to burning a source, of course. Beat reporters have to be especially careful. ""It doesn't make any sense," Williams said. "And you only get to do it once."
After his Rolling Stone article appeared, the Pentagon denied a request by Hastings to be embedded with troops in Iraq (?). Some critics accused the military of punishing Hastings for the military's own mismanagement of the situation.
But the whole McChrystal incident forced serious journalists to re-examine the question of how to maintain trust among the people they cover and the people who watch, read and listen to their reports.
"People are scrutinizing journalists more these days," McCormick said. "Stories are being viewed more carefully. As an industry, we shouldn't run away from that scrutiny. We should be as open as we can be."
Reporters are at a disadvantage when negotiating the terms of attribution for the simple reason that the sources, the public officials, are the ones with the information that the reporters want. At the same time, the officials want some form of the information out, so reporters have significant leverage.
"You really need to push them a little," Williams said. "You need to ask 'Why can't this be on the record?' Especially if what they are saying has to do with policy as opposed to being strictly informational."
Mark Salter, who many reporters know as the alter ego for Arizona Sen. John McCain, and is himself an accomplished writer, is no stranger to dealing with the political press. He and McCain are so tight, some argue he doesn't just speak for McCain, he actually thinks along with him.
"I go on background for various reasons, but usually because the disclosure of my identity would be a bigger story than anything I said, and distract from the point I was trying to make."
In August, that very thing happened to Gibbs, who has the same extremely tight relationship with President Obama that Salter has with McCain. Gibbs was quoted, on the record, complaining that folks he described as the "professional left" are asking for too much from a president they should be supporting more aggressively. Here's what Gibbs said that shot him to the top of the cable TV news docket: "They will be satisfied when we have Canadian healthcare and we've eliminated the Pentagon. That's not reality."
Because Gibbs was quoted by name and accurately (he never disputed the comments and instead apologized for the tone), it was assumed by members of the Beltway chattering class that Gibbs directly expressing the president's own view.
Had Gibbs not allowed his name to be connected to the quote, instead becoming a "senior administration official," or some such euphemism, it's likely Gibbs' comments would not have caused the same firestorm.
What most insiders agree was at the root of the biggest problem in McChrystal's management of the Rolling Stone profile was summarized by Hastings early in the piece: "By midnight at Kitty O'Shea's, much of Team America is completely shitfaced."
Like drinking and driving, drinking and the negotiation of attribution don't mix. Salter abides buy a rule that many of we reporters subscribe to in some form or another:
"I seldom speak to reporters off the record. The few times I have are when I've been in a social setting with reporters." Salter specifically cites having drinks in a bar during a political campaign when there are one or more reporters present whom he doesn't know very well.
"In other words, when I'm not working."
"I might, though not often, say as a precaution in such social conversations, which obviously often include political topics, 'just to be clear, we're off the record tonight.'"