THE BLOG

Samantha Power, Ethical Journalism and Truth: To Quote or Not to Quote?

05/25/2011 12:25 pm ET

In every journalist's life there are moments that define him or her. These are moments of extreme temptation, selfishness and/or honesty. For The Scotsman reporter Gerry Peev, publishing an "off the record" remark made by Samantha Power -- Obama's senior foreign policy advisor -- was one of those moments.

Peev had to chose between garnering enormous publicity and respecting a basic principle of journalistic ethics, simply by choosing whether or not to publish an "off the record" quote. This is what thousands of journalists face on a daily basis; they interview people who make mistakes and ask the interviewer to leave out things that they don't mean or simply realize was incorrect. Journalists then leave out those phrases. That's why sources trust journalists; why they open their hearts and share their information with them.

For many journalists, "off the record" has a very simple and definite meaning. When a source says something - even in an "on the record" interview or conversation -- and corrects him or herself promptly, emphasizing that they didn't mean it, it is understood as unethical to quote that remark.

Ms. Power, who is a talented and terrific scholar but unfamiliar with this sort of destructive journalism, simply complained about the campaign's situation, making a remark that does not match her personality, her record or even the context of the interview. Peev didn't ask why she called Senator Clinton a "monster" and did not ask follow-up questions based on it. Why? Because, when Power said "off the record," the meaning was clear for both parties.

I imagine that when Peev returned to the newsroom and shared the story with her editors, they gave in to the temptation of gaining a huge amount of publicity by quoting that remark -- and disregarding the basic ethical rules of journalism. Simple as that!

So what Peev reported has nothing to do with the truth. The truth is what Samantha Power courageously said about Hillary Clinton soon after Peev's article was published:

"With deep regret, I am resigning from my role as an advisor to the Obama campaign effective today," Power wrote. "Last Monday, I made inexcusable remarks that are at marked variance from my oft-stated admiration for Senator Clinton and from the spirit, tenor, and purpose of the Obama campaign. And I extend my deepest apologies to Senator Clinton, Senator Obama, and the remarkable team I have worked with over these long 14 months."

When the Scottish journalist was asked by an MSNCB anchor why she was printing something that was said off the record, she responded:

"Because I don't know what the convention is in American journalism, but in Britain here we have very firm rules about the fact that generally you establish whether a conversation or interview is on or off the record before it actually happens...we are not in this business to self-censor ourselves; we are in this business to print the truth."

What Peev does not get is that there are some rules and codes that do not belong just to a country or a group of people, but are rather universal. Scotsman editor Mike Gilson ignores this fact when defending his publication's use of the "off-the-record" quotes:

"The interview our political correspondent Gerri Peev conducted with Ms. Power was clearly on an on-the-record basis. She was clearly passionate and angry with the tactics of the Clinton camp over the Ohio primary and that spilled over in the interview. Our job was to put that interview before the public as a matter of public interest. It was for others to judge whether the remarks were ill-judged or spoke of the inexperience in the Obama camp."

The editor simply tries to blur the rules that the whole profession of journalism is based on, using the excuse of it being a "matter of public interest," which is misleading and shows poor judgment on his part.

That's why Samantha Power's resignation over her comments made to the Scotsman that Senator Hillary Clinton was a "monster" raises questions about the ethics of journalism, the rules and codes that the whole profession is based on.

Although there are many journalists who unlike Peev abide by journalism's code of ethics, such an event damages the image of journalists and further exacerbates the difficulty that the media has had keeping people's trust in the past years.

Samantha Power will continue her service to society, but what happened to her is nevertheless truly regrettable.