News for North Texas
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

'You're Never Off The Record' - A Commentary

By Merrie Spaeth, KERA 90.1 commentator

Dallas, TX – You're never 'off the record' and this advice applies to dealing with more than just reporters.

Police Chief Terrell Bolton recently addressed whether police gave preferential treatment to Dallas Cowboy Dwayne Goodrich when they arrested him. The Chief covered topics like bail, risk of flight and so on, but what got attention was Chief Bolton's comment that he would have "liked to see (Goodrich) dragged down the street in handcuffs," and taken to jail "kicking and screaming." Publication of these comments embarrassed the Chief. His spokeswoman said the remarks were "made in confidence to a group of about 40 journalists."

"Made in confidence to reporters?" Who's she kidding? Reporters never turn off their ears. A quick primer on terminology: We all say "off the record." It's supposed to mean, "I'm telling you this but you didn't hear it from me." With a reporter, it means, "You can't quote me." It's interesting that not all reporters have the same definition of "off the record." Some take "off the record" to mean "You can't use this;" others interpret it as, You can use it but not quote me." Still, others define it as information which can be used if it checks out through another route.

In Washington, naturally, this is a high art. There's also "background," meaning - "So you understand the context, but don't quote me." And "deep background" - no relation to Deep Throat - which means you're really an insider.

The Chief's term, "in confidence," is one I've never heard before and wouldn't recommend.

Many people have learned the hard way that any time you're near a reporter or a microphone, assume they're there to pass on what you're saying.

Actually, remember this lesson whoever you are and whoever you're around. The CEO of one large company was facing labor problems. At a cocktail party, a fellow businessman asked him whether there would be a strike, and he responded, "No," and described the labor leaders as "prima donnas." The fellow guest apparently laughed - and repeated the comment - to someone who repeated it - and so on. The labor leader heard about it, and there was you-know-what to pay. The CEO was outraged. "Don't I have any privacy?" he asked. The answer was - in those circumstances - no. People will pass on what you say, particularly things that are insulting or interesting. Reporters have to. It's their job.

Best way to handle it? Think - before you speak. I'm Merrie Spaeth.

Merrie Spaeth is a communications consultant in Dallas.