Gore's off-the-record irony

So there we were on Tuesday - the few, the proud, the 65-odd students fortunate enough to attend the first National Reporting class that former Vice President Al Gore taught at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

Looking eminently professorial in his tan cashmere coat and maroon sweater vest, Mr. Gore strode up to the podium, spread his arms wide, opened his mouth, and said….

Sorry, I can't tell you more. It's off the record.

I realize you feel teased right now, but that's how we felt, too. The university administration had politely but firmly requested that the assembled students keep mum, in spoken and written word, about what happened in the class.

The irony of the university asking journalism students - future champions of a free press - to censor themselves voluntarily didn't go unnoticed or unchallenged.

This episode has caused many of us students to take a serious look at university politics, our First Amendment right to free speech, and the professional ethics we're supposed to take with us when we graduate.

When we heard last month that Gore was coming, we were elated. Then the hammer fell: The university had extended Gore the privilege of lecturing off the record, as it often did for distinguished guest speakers.

Many of us were stunned. Invite a two-term former vice president, a man on the inside of nearly every issue we want to work on in the class, and then tell us we can't use the information? Did the university realize how ridiculous that would look?

I checked with a university official to get the bottom line on what we could and couldn't say. Harried - I felt for him - he said students weren't supposed to quote Gore or talk about the substance of the class. We can't even tell you if he actually did say anything newsworthy. We could, though, discuss our general impressions of Gore and the lecture.

As students here, they tell us we're the torch-bearers of democracy, holding the illuminating flame of public disclosure. Our responsibility is to hold that flame close enough to events and people so we can see, but not so close that we burn our source - and ourselves in the process.

"On the record" and "off the record" are key doctrines in the canon of journalists' professional faith. "On the record" means everything a source says is fair game. "Off the record means" it's totally off the table, though a reporter can take the information and confirm it elsewhere, of course without revealing the original source.

Serious journalists treat on the record/off the record as sacrosanct. You're better off setting yourself on fire before burning sources by betraying their confidence.

Those of us with prior professional experience have little patience with public figures who want to go off the record just to avoid tough questions.

Whether he likes it or not, Gore remains a public figure after an election no one will soon forget. And muzzling a big group is like using a tennis racket to swat a fly - too big and too full of holes to be really effective. Journalists want the news out there, and if something important or provocative is revealed, they'll figure out a way to get the information out to the public. Besides, what could we say that Gore couldn't handle?

Still, going off the record can be a reporter's best tool. In some cases, it's the only way to get crucial information.

I'm not looking to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. If keeping a lid on what Gore says in class offers me the chance to hear some inside information, I'll gladly keep quiet. It's an endurable compromise.

Right now, my classmates and I are hotly debating whether or not the school was right in putting Gore's class off the record. We're caught in the very flame we're taught to carry high.

And in that flame, we also see our own professional characters, and have the chance to forge them into something stronger.

Michael Arnone is a student at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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