On Trump, the Times and off-the-record conversations

It seems to me The New York Times did the impossible this week: It made Donald Trump appear sympathetic.

In a meeting with members of the Times’ editorial  board and a representative from the news desk, the Donald offered his vision of a Trump presidency. That vision appeared strikingly more reasonable on the subject of illegal immigration than we citizens had been led to believe.

Or did it? We don’t really know because the conversation was considered “off the record.” It made its way into the public domain (and Thursday’s GOP debate) because it was leaked, presumably by the Times. One can only imagine why, but whatever the reason it hardly seems appropriate behavior for America’s newspaper of record.

This class explores the relationship between the media and the society it serves. Fundamental to the free flow of information is the notion that once in a while news organizations allow interview subjects latitude in discussing matters too premature, volatile or sensitive for publication. In the case of a political candidate, even a candidate for president, these “off-the-record” dialogues can offer insight into policy positions and more leading to an endorsement, or not.

“Off the record” is a central element of journalistic tradition, with the idea being that these insights remain private unless and until the source decides it is appropriate to release them. To my knowledge, Trump did no such thing yet innuendo from the meeting was front and center Thursday night, interrupting for a moment debate over the size of Trump’s body parts and Marco Rubio’s future as a dogcatcher in Florida.

Indeed, the role of the journalist in a presidential campaign became a political football Thursday as Rubio and Ted Cruz challenged Trump to release tapes of the Times meeting. This followed by a day Trump’s ignorant assertion that he and his minions will “open up the libel laws” so they can sue news organizations for so-called hatchet jobs.

That shows you where Trump’s head is: Ever hear of the First Amendment, the Supreme Court or New York Times vs. Sullivan?

The Times explained that because Trump had OK’d a blended interview, that is, a mix of on- and off-the-record conversations, the meeting was fair game for news coverage. But if that’s the standard,  then promises be damned, why wasn’t his backing off that silly wall plan front page, above-the-fold news? If you’re going to violate a journalistic confidence,  at least go all in for the sake of an informed electorate.

It further explained that the presence of its executive editor / newsroom leader made it a meeting unique from other potential endorsement sessions. Cavalierly, the Times suggested it would not conduct a leak investigation.

It’s hard to imagine the Times endorsing Trump. But it has a moral obligation to hear him out, and good that it did. But Trump has a right also to expect the Times to adhere to the established practices of the industry regardless of who is in the meeting and for what reason. What are we teaching the next generation of journalists when we professionals play fast and loose with best practices?

There is much to love about the Gray Lady — it’s abhorrence of gossip journalism, its multimedia business model and more. I root for it to succeed every day. But I am inclined to think the Times blew it here and its explanations sound more like alibis.


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