Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Journalists to sources: We promise! This is off the record (except that it isn't).

And we reserve the right to determine when it isn't. So, says Jamie McIntyre in quite a few more words. [This is more fallout from the Hippy Lettuce Weekly / McChrystal fiasco.]

Sanka freeze dried version of JM's post:

1. All 'off the record' arrangements are unilaterally revisable contingent upon the judgment of the promise making journalist.

2. If such promises are to be broken, notice must be given to the promisee.

3. It being common knowledge that journalists do break such promises, no promisee should be naive' enough to believe that he can completely relax his guard.

McIntyre concedes that were he in Hastings' place he would find it difficult to determine whether or not the 'off the record' behavior of McChrystal and his staff warranted a breaking of the 'off the record' promise, but does give instances he believes would be much more clear cut for him. He also ultimately agreed with Hastings' judgment.

A problem for journalists lies in these murky grey areas though. For, if they do want to generate useful news of a 'nuanced' nature, as McIntyre suggests, and if it is also common knowledge that journalists do break 'OTR' promises, and it is also common knowledge that they do so, consequent to their judgment, AND it is also common knowledge that there are cases, such as the McChrystal case, that are admittedly 'grey', yet deemed sufficiently important to trigger the promise breaking and a subsequent publication, then one does have to ask the question that is begging, pleading, in fact yelling to be asked:

In the future, who in the military (or any other realm for that matter) will agree to arrangements such as that of Mr. Hastings? Would it not be more prudent simply to "just say no"?

If that becomes the pattern in the future, journalists will find their wells dried, or rather, capped.

For, I can imagine the position of someone who is much more responsible, and much more able to discipline his staff, before and during such an 'embed', (a Petraeus perhaps?) who may nevertheless think:

"Hey, journos still reserve judgement unilaterally with regard to OTR promises, and admit that grey areas sometimes trigger publication. Why should I subject myself to this risk? Why not 'just say no'? I'd be a fool to do otherwise."

That's a damn good question, and one with which journalistic ethics must contend as well.

This is an instance of a Kantian point. Promises become useless, impotent, and impossible to make in an environment where they are broken too frequently. And if an institution is built upon promises, it will collapse in such an environment.

The Gods are uneasy

Awesome pick from the UK's Daily Mail

Is it an omen, a sign of divine disfavor, or merely an electrical discharge?