WASHINGTON: The nonprofit Sunshine in Government Initiative, supported by a number of journalism organizations, sent a letter to 600 press secretaries in the Obama administration and Congress this week, urging them to end the practice of off-the-record speeches.
The organization contends that the use of off-the-record public sessions “disadvantages the press and the public in favor of special audiences who are not bound by the attribution rules,” according to the letter.
The group asserts that attendees who are not members of the press often use social media tools to scoop the reporters in attendance. Organizations including the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the Newspaper Association of America, and the Radio-Television News Directors Association also supported the memo.
The nonprofit makes a distinction between private off-the-record or “on-background” conversations between journalists and government officials and public sessions, saying that private chats are used “to encourage officials to be more forthcoming.”
Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, explained that the memo is primarily a complaint about officials who speak at conferences at other public events.
“There might be 300 to 500 people in the audience who might be tweeting or blogging or whatever, but because they're not from the mainstream media, they get to do whatever they want,” she said. “It's not very fair, and quite honestly the Obama administration shouldn't be doing this.”
Chris Battle, partner at DC-based Adfero Group, said that speakers should assume all public comments will find their way to the Internet.
"The days of feeding red meat to a crowd in one venue, then saying something different in another are over," he said via e-mail. "So are the days of floating trial balloons and hoping nobody knows it was you."