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The New York Times’ Strange Behavior in the Controversy Over Trump’s Off-the-Record Comments

BuzzFeed’s editor-in-chief, Ben Smith, yesterday created a campaign controversy when he suggested that Donald Trump told New York Times editors — in an off-the-record portion of his January candidate interview seeking the paper’s endorsement — that he would be willing to negotiate the more hard-line aspects of his immigration platform, including mass deportation. Trump’s rivals, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, immediately called upon Trump to demand the release of the recording of his off-the-record discussion with NYT editors, insinuating that Trump was deliberately misleading voters.

I’m not particularly interested in the campaign aspect of this controversy. Trump has repeatedly, and quite recently, said on the record that he regards key aspects of his immigration policies as negotiable, subject to the political process. Asked about this last night, Trump reiterated his oft-stated view that “everything is negotiable.” Without knowing exactly what he said to the NYT, it’s impossible to say for certain, but it seems likely he simply told NYT editors some version of that. As Vox’s Matt Yglesias put it, “Trump is hardly the first politician to suggest off the record that his real views are closer to what he thinks journalists want to hear.” I’m more interested in the journalistic questions raised by this controversy.

To begin with, why do New York Times editors automatically deem parts of their candidate interviews “off the record”? What is the purpose of doing that? If, as a journalist, you were making decisions about which candidate to endorse, why would you want to take into account things the candidate was willing to tell only you but not have the public know? And, if you’re purporting to tell the public which candidate they should support, why would you want to base your decrees on views the candidate is unwilling to have voters hear?

The off-the-record ritual in this context can have only two possible purposes: One, candidates can lie to NYT editors in order to induce them to think more favorably about their candidacy, or, two, they can secretly and honestly acknowledge that their public statements made to voters are false but have the editors be bound by the off-the-record agreement not to alert the public. Either way, what journalistic value is provided by agreeing to conceal parts of the interview with a presidential candidate from the public? Doing so virtually ensures that the journalists become the candidate’s collaborator in deceiving the public. How is that journalistically justified in the context of candidate endorsements?

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Then there’s the more significant issue raised by all of this: Having agreed to keep these parts of their discussions with Trump off the record, how can the NYTpossibly justify its slinking around in the dark, trying to disclose what Trump said through leaks, insinuations, and winks? It certainly stands to reason that NYTeditors who gave Trump their assurance that this portion of the discussion would be off the record subsequently broke their promise: either by telling other NYT editors and reporters who then started gossiping about it, or by directly leaking it to people like Ben Smith.

For purposes of Smith’s article, NYT editors refused to comment on their discussions with Trump, citing the off-the-record agreement, but someone told people outside the meeting about it or else Smith wouldn’t know about it. The only other possibility — that the Trump campaign leaked it — is extremely unlikely for obvious reasons: It has zero incentive to do so and every incentive not to. And Smith explicitly stated that New York Times reporters and columnists have been talking about Trump’s off-the-record comments for some time, and suggested that a recent Gail Collins column specifically referenced those off-the-record comments.

Regardless of what one thinks of Trump, journalists shouldn’t be promising people to keep their discussions off the record only to then violate that vow through gossip or deliberate disclosures. Doing so is wildly unethical, and is guaranteed to destroy the trust between sources and journalists that is vital to good reporting. That’s true no matter who is the subject of the agreement: even Donald Trump.

I personally think, as I’ve written before, that there are very narrow circumstances where it is justified for a journalist to disclose the identity of a source who has been promised anonymity, or to report on discussions conducted pursuant to an off-the-record agreement: namely, where the source has deliberately and knowingly used the journalist to disseminate falsehoods to the public (as an example, I’ve cited the case of the anonymous government sources who falsely told ABC News’ Brian Ross in late 2001 that chemical tests revealed that Saddam Hussein was behind the anthrax attacks on the U.S.; see more on that controversy here from NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen). My colleague Dan Froomkin argued yesterdaythat Trump’s immigration comments could be such a case: “If someone admits, off the record, that they’re lying to you, on the record? I say that’s cause for burning them.”

But that’s not what the NYT editors have done here. They’re not arguing that it’s justified for them to disclose Trump’s off-the-record comments. To the contrary: They’re invoking off-the-record principles to justify their refusal to publish the relevant recording of their discussions with Trump. They’re claiming that they still regard their off-the-record agreement with Trump as valid and binding.

Rather than candidly disclose Trump’s off-the-record comments and then expressly justify why they’ve done so, the NYT editors are instead causing those comments to leak through some combination of negligence and subterfuge. That’s actually worse than doing it the direct, honest way. They’ve now put the person to whom they promised confidentiality in the position of either having to demand that they disclose what was discussed off the record, or have the public assume that it was something bad and shameful. None of this should have been off the record in the first place, but once the NYT made the bad decision to make that promise, it’s bound to honor its own commitment.

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