‘Near-mythical’ rumors stem from violation of a ‘sacred trust’

Read at Daily Herald website

It’s not often one would expect to see the phrases “Donald Trump” and “sacred” in close proximity with each other without an “is nothing” in there somewhere, but as the 2016 presidential campaign is amply demonstrating, anything can happen.
Unfortunately, this anything involved what Daily Herald Editor John Lampinen rightly describes as a “sacred trust” when journalists allow sources to go off the record. Somehow, the BuzzFeed website got wind this week of a breach of that trust between The New York Times and Donald Trump. BuzzFeed claimed that a recording and transcript of Trump’s January endorsement interview with the Times editorial board “reached near-mythical status” at the newspaper because the candidate allegedly said something suggesting he is not committed to the immigration policy he so often and so forcefully says he is committed to.
The precise character of the breach can’t be determined because the Times, appropriately, won’t discuss it without Trump’s permission, and, Trump, this may surprise you, has remained arrogantly coy. But the controversy opens an important discussion about a journalistic practice that is little understood, though widely invoked.
Lampinen raised the topic at an editors meeting this week, because he wanted to emphasize the seriousness of the commitment editors and reporters make when they agree to let a source go “off the record.” One can only speculate at this point how BuzzFeed learned of something that went on in a closed meeting of the Times’ editorial board and a presidential candidate, but even the least sinister hypothesis — that someone in the meeting mentioned something to someone in the newsroom, who mentioned it to someone else and so on, leading as these things do to that “near-mythical” swarm of rumor — is an indictment of someone who failed to keep a promise.
Whole treatises can be written on whether sources ought ever be allowed to go off the record, and some hardy post-Watergate-era souls have even on occasion taken up the fruitless task of trying to parse the distinctions of such terms as “off the record,” “for background only” and “on deep background” — as if there is a rulebook on such distinctions or, more to the point, as if everyone who deals with reporters has read it.
But indeed there are times, and not infrequently, when sources believe that we will be able to characterize their positions appropriately only if we understand some detail or idea that can’t be shared with the broader story, so there is often value in indulging them.
But when we do, we have a responsibility to keep our word. To do otherwise jeopardizes the trust not just from a burned source but from all potential future sources. And that responsibility, the Trump episode demonstrates, extends to our interactions with close friends, with our families or with anyone else. For, the thing about a secret is that, once shared with “only one” trustworthy person who shares it with “only one” trustworthy person, it shortly becomes an unverifiable, likely vastly distorted rumor of, yes, near-mythical proportions — with, by the way, all the reliability that the term “myth” implies.
Trump opponents Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, apparently less troubled by the publication of speculation about a rumored statement made privately than about the rumor itself, are calling for Trump to release the Times from its agreement and have his comments published, but that does not appear likely. So, we may never know what he actually told the paper’s editorial board.
What journalists must remember is that it’s a deeply regrettable mistake that anyone was ever put in the position of wondering.
Jim Slusher, [email protected], is an assistant managing editor at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/jim.slusher1 and on Twitter at @JimSlusher.