Monday, June 15, 2009

Brian Stelter Lets CNN's Jon Klein Talk Off The Record, Then Busts Him On Twitter. That's Not Cool.

In Brian Stelter's widely-circulated NYT piece this morning reporting criticisms of CNN's Iran coverage as weak, there's this quote from an unnamed person at CNN -- attributed, oddly, just to CNN, as though an institution can speak with one voice:

CNN said, “We share people’s expectations of CNN and have delivered far more coverage of the Iranian election and aftermath than any other network.”

Shortly after the story appeared online, Jay Rosen, a frequent Twitterer who teaches at NYU's journalism school, twittered the anonymous CNN quote. In response, Stelter revealed that he had spoken -- "off the record" -- with Jonathan Klein, who oversees the CNN news department as president of CNN/US, after the story appeared online.

Here's Stelter's tweet:

@jayrosen_nyu FYI, Jon Klein did not respond to me until after the #CNNfail story appeared online. He labeled his response off the record.

But if the quote wasn't from Klein -- and apparently it wasn't -- then what was Stelter tweeting about Klein's off-the-record comments on Twitter? It's our view that when a source asks to be kept off the record, that means it's wrong to identify him publicly -- not just in print, but in public forums of any kind. And that would include Twitter.

Stelter has 9,960 followers on Twitter. It may not measure up to the NYT's readership, but anything he tweets counts as public disclosure. He should know better than to bust an arrangement with a confidential source in front of thousands of people he doesn't know -- and to make disclosures on Twitter that he wouldn't in print. Stelter ought to respect the right of sources to communicate with him off the record without the expectation that they'll be busted on Twitter.

One Twitterer has suggested a "grey area" that would allow Stelter to report on having had an off-the-record conversation with Klein, while not divulging its contents. But we see no grey area about confidentiality, and the rules should be no less stringent on this point. It's not the intention of a confidential source to have his/her identity as a source revealed on Twitter, or anywhere else, even if not quoted. That's the rule-break to which our headline refers.

In any case, we have emailed Stelter for his comment/explanation, and will report it as soon as he responds.

UPDATE: Here are the comments from Stelter, with replies from The NYTPicker:

From Brian Stelter, 10:47 a.m.:

Your post is, as you put it, "not cool." I would never, ever disclose a source who demands anonymity. Why would any person jump to that conclusion?

The comment in the story comes from a CNN spokeswoman. If the comment had come from Mr. Klein, it would have said so.

On Twitter, I informed Jay Rosen that Mr. Klein had not commented because Mr. Rosen had asked about it hours ago. Avid followers of the #CNNfail story may have found it interesting that Mr. Klein declined to reply until after the story appeared.

May I suggest that there are, occasionally, reasons to wait publishing until the subject of the post responds to an e-mail?



From The NYTPicker, 11:21 a.m.:

Thanks for your comment. However, it doesn't address the point of our post.

Your tweet clearly identified Klein as someone you interviewed "off the record." Whether the quote in your story came from Klein isn't the point. Your disclosure on Twitter violated the off-the-record terms of the interview, and disclosed the identity of a news source who demanded anonymity.


From Brian Stelter, 11:37 a.m.:

Your premise is incorrect. I did not interview Mr. Klein. I asked him to talk to me; he declined to talk to me.

Most importantly, I never agreed to Mr. Klein's request for anonymity.

As you know, "off the record" is an agreement between two parties to preserve anonymity. Mr. Klein assumed anonymity without that agreement by labeling the e-mail "off the record."

Nonetheless, I respected his request to speak freely in an e-mail, and did not disclose his remarks on Twitter. I merely explained, to a reader who had asked, that he wouldn't talk to me.

To be clear, I did not claim to have interviewed Klein, on the record or off. My tweet said only that "Klein did not respond to me until after the #CNNfail story appeared online. He labeled his response off the record."


From The NYTPicker, 12:15 p.m.:

Stelter says that "off the record" involves an "agreement between two parties." That isn't the case in email.

For example: a New York Times reporter wrote us an email this morning to comment on the Stelter story. "This email is off the record and not for publication," the reporter wrote. It would not be legitimate for us to Twitter that "Reporter XXX from the NYT wrote to us off the record," on the basis that we did not agree to the terms he set forth in his email.

We admire Stelter's tenacity as a reporter, and his desire to hold Jon Klein accountable. However, we continue to believe that Klein was entitled to assume that his email to Stelter was off the record -- not only its contents, but the fact of its existence.


UPDATE: A previous version of this post made reference to Stelter's age. A reader raised the point that Stelter's age is irrelevant to this post. On reflection, we agree, and have removed the reference.

15 comments:

Rob said...

Wait a sec...how do we know the Jonathan Klein off the record response and the "CNN said" comment are the same comment? Nothing necessarily indicates that. "CNN said" might have been a CNN flack who for some sloppy reason wasn't identified as such. It's not as if the published comment is all that juicy. It's a standard flack response. If that were Klein's comment, why would he want that off the record?

Jay Rosen said...

I think you have drawn an unwarranted and incorrect conclusion. Stelter told me that he had spoken to Klein only after the article ran online. That means, if you believe Stelter, that Klein could not have been the source of the quote and it was a CNN spokesperson. Evidently you believe Stelter because you clearly think he spoke to Klein. So I think you will have to correct your post. At least, I would. Cheers.

THE NYTPICKER said...

We've updated our post to clarify the issue. The main purpose of our post was to point out that a reporter shouldn't bust a confidential source on Twitter, whether the source is quoted or not.

Brian Stelter said...

Your post is, as you put it, "not cool." I would never, ever disclose a source who demands anonymity. Why would any person jump to that conclusion?

The comment in the story comes from a CNN spokeswoman. If the comment had come from Mr. Klein, it would have said so.

On Twitter, I informed Jay Rosen that Mr. Klein had not commented because Mr. Rosen had asked about it hours ago. Avid followers of the #CNNfail story may have found it interesting that Mr. Klein declined to reply until after the story appeared.

May I suggest that there are, occasionally, reasons to wait publishing until the subject of the post responds to an e-mail?

THE NYTPICKER said...

Thanks for your comment. However, it doesn't address the point of our post.

Your tweet clearly identified Klein as someone you interviewed "off the record." Whether the quote in your story came from Klein isn't the point. Your disclosure on Twitter violated the off-the-record terms of the interview, and disclosed the identity of a news source who demanded anonymity.

Brian Stelter said...

Your premise is incorrect. I did not interview Mr. Klein. I asked him to talk to me; he declined to talk to me.

Most importantly, I never agreed to Mr. Klein's request for anonymity.

As you know, "off the record" is an agreement between two parties to preserve anonymity. Mr. Klein assumed anonymity without that agreement by labeling the e-mail "off the record."

Nonetheless, I respected his request to speak freely in an e-mail, and did not disclose his remarks on Twitter. I merely explained, to a reader who had asked, that he wouldn't talk to me.

To be clear, I did not claim to have interviewed Klein, on the record or off. My tweet said only that "Klein did not respond to me until after the #CNNfail story appeared online. He labeled his response off the record."

THE NYTPICKER said...

Stelter says that "off the record" involves an "agreement between two parties." That isn't the case in email.

For example: a New York Times reporter wrote us an email this morning to comment on the Stelter story. "This email is off the record and not for publication," the reporter wrote. It would not be legitimate for us to Twitter that "Reporter XXX from the NYT wrote to us off the record," on the basis that we did not agree to the terms he set forth in his email.

We admire Stelter's tenacity as a reporter, and his desire to hold Jon Klein accountable. However, we continue to believe that Klein was entitled to assume that his email to Stelter was off the record -- not only its contents, but the fact of its existence.

Ugarles said...

You are wrong. Wrong wrong wrong. If a party wants to step forward and offer themselves up "off the record," they take the chance that the offer will be declined and the approach itself will be deemed on the record. The rules of journalism can't be set by timid mice and PR flacks.

Anonymous said...

This is a tricky one. I agree with Ugarles's point that journalists shouldn't be patsies. But in this situation it sounds like Stelter got an email from Klein that he declared "off the record." Is it legitimate for Stelter to ignore that, just because he doesn't feel it's fair or appropriate? If he writes back to Klein and says, "I don't agree to make this off the record," does that free Stelter to quote the email? Like I said, tricky.

Anonymous said...

Jay Rosen asked if Klein had a response. A reasonable question, given the nature of the story; Klein was certainly someone the reporter should have talked to. What would you have had Stelter say?

a) "No" -- a lie, because Klein did respond?

b) "Yes, but I won't tell you what it was" or any other form of "none of your business" -- suggesting that the decision to withhold the comment was Steltner's and not Klein's?

c) Silence?

What if the official CNN spokesperson had similarly sent an e-mail labeled "off the record?" Would Steltner then have been unable to tell anyone whether he'd even contacted the network at all?

Tanystropheus said...

I gotta agree with Stelter here. I don't see how the medium makes any difference. Sending someone an e-mail that says "This is off the record, but blah blah blah" is the same as walking up to him in the street and saying the same thing.

Or consider another analogy: somebody mails you a rubber duck, which is stamped with a notice saying "I am mailing you this rubber duck on the condition that you do not reveal that I mailed you anything, including but not limited to a rubber duck." You had no prior notice of this condition before receiving the duck. Would you consider yourself obliged to keep the secret of the duck-sender's identity?

Bottom line: if you tell someone a secret before he has agreed to keep it a secret, you have no right to expect that he will keep it at all. Stelter was being generous to Mr. Klein by revealing only his name.

Ron the Angry Editor said...

Hey man I hate to jump on the bandwagon, but as a newspaper editor I wouldn’t hold my reporter accountable for outing a confidential source given the evidence you presented. While I think many of your posts are insightful, you really missed the boat on this topic. It almost seems sort of personal and a little petty.
Stelter didn’t out the guy. I always tell anyone who calls or sits down with me when I’m on the job that nothing is off the record unless specifically agreed to between us. It doesn’t sound to me like that was the deal made between Stelter and Klein.
You would expect Klein to be as aware of that as anyone else who works in media.

Dan said...

The only controversy this post generates is the prominent placement of the anonymous CNN quote, juxtaposed closely to Stelter's tweet. I had to read it twice before I could conclude that you weren't accusing Stelter of outing Klein as the source of the bland quote. The word "Busts" denotes something dramatic; outing Klein as the source would be dramatic. Saying that Klein spoke off-the-record about something is not dramatic, just an interesting point about anonymous sources.

The general rule, as several have pointed out, that the reporter does not have to honor a request for staying off-the-record, and if the source was careless enough to divulge information before receiving a promise, it's fair game.

Beyond the clear ethical issues, there's little to disrespect in Stelter's handling of this. Klein is a massive public figure; the fact that he might have said anonymous comments to Stelter is not particularly interesting or damaging to Klein or CNN (unless a reporter, such as yourself, carelessly conflates the two as you have done in this post). I'd feel a bit differently if this was the case of a reporter casually mentioning that he had an off-the-record discussion with Joe Doe, mid-level operations manager of Acme Corporation, a company that is under suspicion of, say, covering up massive environmental violations. Joe Doe was not in the spotlight before, he certainly is now, and when Acme goes about on a witchhunt for whistleblowers, Doe's job is in danger.

That kind of conduct should raise an eyebrow, even if not technically illegal or contract-breaking. But Klein is clearly, clearly not even in this ballpark.

Anonymous said...

Come on you guys. You are wrong. You know you are wrong. It is obvious you are wrong. It is obvious you jumped to conclusions. Now do the standup thing and correct the correction. No one is perfect -- not even you guys. Don't worry. We still love you.

Ron the Angry Editor said...
This comment has been removed by the author.