A few days ago, I got to do what many Americans would like to do -- ask Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano a thing or two. Before I report on what I asked and what she said, I must note there were "ground rules" in effect. The conversation itself between a small group of mainly conservative-minded journalists and Napolitano was free and even easy, but reporting on any aspect of the exchange required after-the-fact approval from DHS Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Sean Smith.
This rankles. It is also something new in my personal experience. Sure, I have conducted scores of one-on-one interviews "on background," a term which, in brief, I define as a means to acquire an understanding of a story from a source unwilling to be quoted directly, at least at first. Follow-up conversations may or may not be "on the record." But I have never participated as a member of a group so bound, and I have to say I don't like it.
First of all, it's a phony setup. Telling 15 or 20 people in a room a secret is obviously no way to keep one, no way to keep anything confidential. There are simply too many people involved, each with his own private pipeline to public access. Something else is afoot. Making the journalist into a kind of co-conspirator? Or, as bad, a supplicant begging for morsels of information? The point, we are told, is to allow for a no-holds-barred exchange -- attractive on its face, maybe, but in the end, when you actually have to go back and ask for permission to print a government official's response to questions every American has the right to ask, the exchange is very much barred. In sum, the state is managing the news.
So why did I participate? Curiosity. I wanted to see "Big Sis" in person. I was curious also how an event billed as "off the record" -- which to my understanding means "total blackout, didn't happen, can't use it" -- could be selectively switched to "on the record" by government diktat. I wanted to see how our brave new world works.
I didn't "clear" my impressions of Napolitano the person, so I'll have to leave them "off the record." I did e-mail the press secretary for permission (gag) to report two particular points Napolitano made. What follows is how I played along with the state, almost as a lark. (PS. I don't claim it's pretty). "Hi, Sean - Good to hear from you.
"Two main points I'd like to be able to write up: