In the good old days when there were rules and there were people who knew the rules, and they taught the rules to new people, who then followed the rules, there were basically three levels of discussion between reporters and sources:
-- On the Record
-- On Background
-- Off the Record
This is a good topic for discussion because the Attorney General of these United States, Eric Holder, is participating in an Obama Administration-wide charm offensive with the national media in an effort to try and get back to what President Obama considers to be the normal state of affairs: The press fawning over his every word and deed.
Unless you have been in Malawi or Zambia for the past few months you know that scandals are cascading over this White House like a storm surge over Carolina barrier islands.
Benghazi; the IRS; the AP; and James Rosen are the big four but there is a looming issue at the Department of Health and Human Services that is getting scant attention only because everyone hates the IRS and most of us think that wiretapping regular citizens doing their legal jobs is not a good thing.
CBS.com's Jake Miller summed up the Holder plan as follows:
In an effort to tamp down the continued furor over the Justice Department's surveillance of journalists as part of a leak investigation, Attorney General Eric Holder was scheduled to meet this week with the Washington bureau chiefs of major news organizations to chart a path forward for leak probes that safeguards the freedom of the press while protecting American national security.
Problem is, Holder's people want these meetings to be off the record.
Now, back to the rules.
When I was a functioning press secretary this is more-or-less what everyone agreed to:
-- On the record meant I could be quoted directly and identified by name and/or title. "Rich Galen, spokesman for Republican Whip Newt Gingrich, said today …"
-- On background meant I could be quoted but my identity had to be protected. "A staffer with knowledge of Gingrich's thinking said today …"
-- The big one was "off the record." As I understood it, off the record meant that not only could a reporter not quote what I said; he or she could not refer to anything I said, nor could they use what I said to tray and tease the information out of someone else.
Off the record meant: It never happened.
There is no umpire, so these rules were agreed to by the people involved in the conversation. And, it was not unusual to go from "on the record" to "on background" and back to "on the record" several times in the same conversation.
Sometimes a reporter would call back to make sure that what I was going to be quoted on was during the "on the record" portion of the conversation.
Most reporters, back in the day, would simply not talk to me about a particular subject if it was going to be off the record. They would rather take their chances getting the information from someone else; rather than being foreclosed from using anything I told them.
This all requires a high degree of trust between reporters and sources. Only once in my entire career has a trusted reporter quoted me by name on something that was supposed to have been on background.
It was a late night interview, the reporter was on deadline, and he simply made a mistake which was corrected in the next edition of his newspaper. This was pre-Google so I don't even know if it still exists.
Most of the news organizations that have been invited to these off the record sessions with the Attorney General have refused to attend. The Senior Justice Department official in the nation, who is at the center of a burning controversy over approving surveillance of a senior reporter, James Rosen, does not get to tell his side of the story to people who are forbidden to use what he says.
If anything, these off the record invitations are making things even worse for the Obama White House. This isn't Chicago where your desk in the press room at city hall will suddenly disappear if you don't play ball.
This is the big leagues and the Obama Administration is going to have to learn - after five years - to play at this level.
And that's, on the record.