Journalism 101: Tucker Carlson thinks he knows when the record is on
Surprisingly, electoral politics is not the most interesting thing about the hullabaloo surrounding Samantha Power’s resignation from the Obama campaign over her “off the record” comments describing Hillary Clinton as a “monster.” For Spectator, the real issue concerns the rights and responsibilities governing reporters and their subjects. In an interview on MSNBC last Friday, right-wing weenie Tucker Carlson confronted Scotsman reporter Gerri Peev on his now-cancelled show, asking her why she wouldn’t have honoured Ms. Power’s after-the-fact request that her remarks be treated as “off the record”:
CARLSON: What—she wanted it off the record. Typically, the arrangement is if someone you’re interviewing wants a quote off the record, you give it to them off the record. Why didn’t you do that?PEEV: Are you really that acquiescent in the United States? In the United Kingdom, journalists believe that on or off the record is a principle that’s decided ahead of the interview. If a figure in public life…CARLSON: Right.PEEV: …Someone who’s ostensibly going to be an advisor to the man who could be the most powerful politician in the world, if she makes a comment and decides it’s a bit too controversial and wants to withdraw it immediately after, unfortunately if the interview is on the record, it has to go ahead.CARLSON: Right. Well, it’s a little…PEEV: I didn’t set out in any way, shape…CARLSON: Right. But I mean, since journalistic standards in Great Britain are so much dramatically lower than they are here, it’s a little much being lectured on journalistic ethics by a reporter from the Scotsman, but I wonder if you could just explain what you think the effect is on the relationship between the press and the powerful. People don’t talk to you when you go out of your way to hurt them as you did in this piece. Don’t you think that hurts the rest of us in our effort to get to the truth from the principals in these campaigns?PEEV: If this is the first time that candid remarks have been published about what one campaign team thinks of the other candidate, then I would argue that your journalists aren’t doing a very good job of getting to the truth. Now I did not go out of my way in any way, shape or form to hurt Miss Power. I believe she’s an intelligent and perfectly affable woman. In fact, she’s—she is incredibly intelligent so she—who knows she may have known what she was doing.
Well, besides scoring a first-round TKO over the snot-nosed Carlson, Ms. Peev points out the single greatest difference between journalism (and discourse, broadly speaking) in the U.S. and journalism in the U.K.: in the U.S., access is the coin of the realm; in the U.K., it’s candour that wins the day. British journalists tend to be more candid in their questioning and endeavour to elicit greater candour from their subjects. All of this plays well to the public, and a virtuous circle of relatively straight talk ensues.
Another example of the same phenomenon turns on comments attributed to the novelist Martin Amis as reported in the London Times. Amis took off after the Muslim population of Britain whilst contemplating a recently revealed terrorist plot:
There’s a definite urge—don’t you have it?—to say, “The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order.” What sort of suffering? Not letting them travel. Deportation—further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms. Strip-searching people who look like they’re from the Middle East or from Pakistan… Discriminatory stuff, until it hurts the whole community and they start getting tough with their children.
It took several months, but the response from British literary critic and social theorist Terry Eagleton was ferocious: the comments were “not the ramblings of a British National Party thug, but the reflections of the novelist Martin Amis, leading luminary of the English metropolitan literary world…[calling for] the calculated harassment of a whole population [as a way of] humiliating and insulting certain kinds of men and women at random, so that they will return home and teach their children to be nice to the White Man.” Amis, in turn, called Eagleton a “marooned ideologue.”
Oh, what a lovely war. The entire affair was picked up by Britain’s mainstream press, and the debate rages on to the present moment. And here’s the thing: none of it was “off the record.” If you say something in Britain, you expect to be held to accounts. And as charmless and retrograde as his comments were, Amis stood by them—or at least had the guts to admit that he had, in fact, said them.
All of which is to the good. Samantha Power’s instinct to draw a veil over her comments and Obama’s instinct to distance himself from her once it was revealed that the comment emerged from flesh and blood rather than the usual “sources close to the Obama campaign” is all to the bad. Free speech means taking responsibility for your words and buttressing them with reasoned argument, otherwise they’re just another form of brute transaction.
• Amis and Islam [New York Times]• Tucker Carlson unintentionally reveals the role of the American press [Salon] • MSNBC Cancels Tucker Carlson Show [New York Times]