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.