Reporters Scold Off-the-Record Officials

Some demand officials at widely attended meetings keep their remarks on the record.

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By Paul Bedard, Washington Whispers

Reporters have had it with officials abruptly going "off the record" at public events and conferences. Now some are calling for an end to it. "If you're giving a speech to the public, and especially if the organizers have made it open to the press, don't declare your comments to be off the record. That's silly," says Rick Blum, coordinator of the Sunshine in Government Initiative, which is asking media outfits to sign a letter urging an end to the widening practice.

BNA reporter Brett Ferguson says it happens regularly, frustrating reporters who are invited to cover technical conferences, only to hear a speaker announce that a talk is off the record. He recalls attending a recent conference where two Hill staffers decided to go off the record. "The two shy staffers—a tax counsel for the Senate Finance Committee Democrats and a counsel for House Ways and Means Republicans—made that stipulation despite the fact that they were in a huge room with people entering and leaving throughout their remarks, making it impossible to know who in the room heard they wanted it to be 'off the record' and whether anyone would actually honor that demand. Moreover, it was one of only three events in that all-day conference that was specifically advertised as open press. All of the other sessions were closed to the press."

Ferguson says he and another reporter decided to play hardball and ran the quotes anyway. {Normally, it's a two-way street with reporters first agreeing to off-the-record demands before an official talks.} Ferguson says that after some angry calls, "that's when I knew for sure we needed to do something to let her and other staffers know that this practice is a problem."

In the draft letter being circulated for news agencies to sign, there's a specific demand that officials at widely attended meetings keep their comments on the record. "Keeping public remarks by officials at all levels in the government on the record will greatly improve transparency and accountability for taxpayers," it reads.

Blum especially wants officials to stay on the record when talking policy, a request he made to Barack Obama's transition team. "We'd like fewer backgrounders, and when comments are made off the record or on background only, it's only to provide context or background information, not to discuss policy," he says.

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