Nothing is really off-the-record. No conversation between more than two people is ever really off-the-record, and no e-mail is ever, ever off-the-record. It’s just the way it is. I’ve been leaked postings from JournoList before — wonderfully charming things written about me, as you might have guessed — and I haven’t had the opportunity to use them, but would be happy to if the need arose. Why anyone would think that a listserv with 400 people is private is beyond me.
Two legitimately interesting journalistic issues have come out of the Dave Weigel-Washington Post.com case.
One stems from the question of whether there is any measure of private speech online. The consensus seems to be that there is none, that anything anyone puts out there is subject to becoming public. Really, that is nothing new. Even written letters and person-to-person phone calls that in the old days came with some expectation of initial privacy were well known to become public if, for instance, police obtained a wiretap order or the letters changed hands one way or another. College students have already learned that Facebook is not a private network and can come back to bite them. What’s curious to me is that someone so in the digital thick of things as Weigel hadn’t figured that out about even relatively old-school environments such as listservs.
More to the point for journalists, though, is whether we ought to have some standards about what not-really-private-but-not-intended-to-be-public digital communications we are willing to repeat to our public when they come our way. If someone sent us copies of someone’s private hand-written letters, generally we would not automatically accept them as now being in the public domain. There would be some soul-searching and ethical discussion, even if some other less reputable outlet used them first.
At least that used to be one of the hallmarks of professional journalism. It is less clear to the public whether such standards apply to today’s hybrid mainstream-blogsphere-cablenews journalism.
Which leads to the second issue raised by the Weigel case: whether it is possible to be an opinionated impartial reporter, an unbiased journalist with a viewpoint. Common sense would seem to say no, that’s not really possible. But common sense has been trumped these past years by the objectivity-is-a-myth camp and the old-media-just-don’t-get-it crowd. The Internet is personal and not taking a stand is impersonal, besides being a sham, they say. As a result all the mainstream media.com have filled their blog rolls with people like Weigel who are intended to do both opinion and journalism but apparently wind up doing neither very well according to the public.
The point that people in the objectivity-is-a-myth camp miss is that objectivity is not a result. It is a process. Professional journalists know as well as anyone else that it is not possible to be without opinion. That would mean being without passion, without humanity. Professional journalists need both in large measure. But professional journalists accept a responsibility to society that requires placing a higher value on fairness, tolerance, diversity and balance than on their personal First Amendment Right.
At least that used to be one of the hallmarks of professional journalism. We wouldn’t even join the PTA at our kids’ school or put bumper stickers on our cars, not to hide our interests but to force ourselves to remain as impartial as we could. Again, it is less clear to the public whether such standards apply to today’s hybrid mainstream-blogsphere-cablenews journalism where opinion and news tend to mix fluidly.