The Demise of `Off the Record'

AT a White House lunch with editors of the New York Times in 1975, President Ford was led into the indiscretion of saying that the CIA had been involved in conspiracies to assassinate foreign leaders. Press Secretary Ron Nessen jumped in to say that this was off the record. The Times, after some internal debate, agreed to keep the confidence, but word of the president's explosive remark found its way to me, not bound by any off-the-record commitment. I got CIA director William Colby to confirm the fact and broke the story on the CBS Evening News, leading to a Senate investigation that exposed the CIA's attempts to kill Fidel Castro Ruz and other third-world leftist leaders.

The recent brouhaha over Hillary Rodham Clinton's luncheon with female reporters and columnists has revived the controversy that flares when supposedly off-the-record confidences are broken. In my journalistic time, which goes back 60 years, there used to be pretty good understanding about what off the record meant. We had the ``Lindley Rule,'' named for Ernest Lindley of Newsweek, which translated ``off the record'' as compulsory plagiarism. You could say what someone thought or did or planned to do, as long as you didn't say how you knew.

James ``Scotty'' Reston of the New York Times, after a private chat with President Kennedy at the end of the Vienna Summit with Nikita Khrushchev in 1961, could report, without saying how he knew, that the president came away in a ``somber'' mood because Khrushchev seemed to be building up to a Berlin crisis.

Since then there's been a decline in civility between press and public officials, a sharpening of competition among reporters, an erosion of the understanding that confidences would remain confidences. As often as not, an official says ``off the record,'' meaning ``not for attribution,'' and ``not for attribution,'' meaning ``no direct quotation.''

The peak, or maybe the pit, of the off-the-record charade was reached in 1974 when Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, engaged in Middle East shuttle diplomacy, permitted favored reporters to attribute their information to ``a senior official aboard Secretary Kissinger's plane.'' Diplomatic discretion wrestled with Kissinger ego and lost.

Now the Hillary flap. The first lady, clearly wanting the 11 women writers to understand and like her, sought to speak intimately. They wanted not just a seduction but a story. So there ensued a messy business of oscillating between off the record and on the record.

The first lady found herself being quoted by Marian Burros of the Times on remarks that others had understood to be off the record, especially the quote in Ms. Burros's lead that Mrs. Clinton admitted to having been ``dumb and naive'' about national politics. She also accepted blame for blowing the health-care debate.

Hell hath no fury like a reporter scooped, especially scooped by a perceived violation of the rules. The Times claimed that Burros had checked out the quotes with the White House and gotten permission to use them. If true, the White House had the obligation, under the unwritten rules, to advise the others of the lifted embargo.

The whole system of cozy confidences, of ``compulsory plagiarism,'' seems to be breaking down. In a way, a pity. In the old days, an off-the-record confidence could help me understand why a story I thought I had was wrong, or alert me to a story to come, or just let me understand an official's thinking. But a confidential discussion requires a civil relationship. That is what's lacking today. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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