When the Democratic National Convention Committee chose to hold an “off the record” media day in Charlotte yesterday, with rigid but vague rules governing what journalists could report — or, more precisely, what they couldn't report — the message to citizens of Charlotte and beyond was, “If you don’t play our way, you won’t play at all.”
When the Democratic National Convention Committee chose to hold an "off the record” session during its media day in Charlotte yesterday, with rules governing what journalists could report — or, more precisely, what they couldn't report — it rubbed some journalists wrong.
Although many of us use "off the record" details to lead us to key information that can make or break an important story, not many of us are completely comfortable with it. For an organization like the DNCC — which involves public figures, public spaces and public money — it's even less comfortable. Nothing of great importance was revealed during the "off the record" portion of yesterday's DNCC media event — just stuff like the size and cost of media suites and other non-earthshattering news — but that isn't the issue. The issue is that the Democratic National Convention is visiting Charlotte for its event in September. The city is excited about that event. Translated another way: the people of this city are the DNCC's hosts. The DNCC is our guest.
(ADDED: After I published this column, some of which was based on faulty information, the DNCC's press secretary, Joanne Peters, called to clarify the media event's rules. She pointed out, rightly, that the only "off the record" portion of yesterday's media event involved discussion of logistics involving planning for media outlets that are scheduled to attend the Democratic National Convention. During the same media event, an earlier welcome session from DNCC chair Steve Kerrigan was, indeed, on the record, as CL's weekly DNC Notebook report by Mary C. Curtis makes clear. While the DNCC event was not fully "off the record," I stand by my general comments regarding big events and so-called "off the record" information. Peters suggested journalists in "smaller markets" don't fully understand the nature of large events or importance of "off the record" information. I sharply differed with her on that point. I believe too many journalists have become too comfortably compliant in agreeing not to report certain information they receive from powerful organizations. And I say that from the perspective of someone who's done a little editing and reporting in those savvier "larger markets," as Peters put it.)
The Democrats are calling this year's event “The People’s Convention.” If that's really the case, "the people" of this city, state and nation should be treated with dignity. And that means not treating "the people" like children by telling the watchdogs of this community what they can and can’t report. If you have something you don't want reported, don't say it and don't show it.
But — and here's why the DNCC folks threw the big shindig — they needed and wanted the press. They also wanted to control the press. If you're a big organization like the DNCC, you can't expect to have your cake and eat it, too.
Earlier today, I posted CL social media editor Desiree Kane’s (recently corrected) blog entry on the “off the record” issue on my Facebook page. In that blog, she published a comment from me on some concerns expressed by Charlotte Observer reporter Mark Washburn, who was told by a DNCC official that he could leave the event if he wasn’t prepared to play by the rules.
"[Creative Loafing’s] position,” I said to Kane, “is that organizations like the Democratic National Convention Committee should not hold media events and then demand they be off the record. We generally don't like the idea of anything being off the record. It sets a bad journalistic precedent."
One of my more conservative Facebook friends wrote, “I agree 100% with your comment, Mark. Unfortunately I think the DNC makes these rules because it views the media as political allies who will do as they're told.”
My response to him was: “I don't think the DNCC is the only organization that thinks the media will ‘do as they're told.’ Big organizations of all kinds — particularly when they come into relatively small markets — try to manipulate the media into playing by their rules, and it's not journalistically healthy, whatever organization does it.
“Having worked in entertainment news for years," I continued, "[I’ve found that] big rock stars, major record labels, film studios and actors are the worst offenders. But when it comes to matters of public information on public figures and public events held in public-funded facilities, it's particularly egregious.”
Whatever our political affiliation or political leanings may be, we at Creative Loafing believe first in free speech and transparency. The “off the record” rules of (added: parts of) yesterday’s DNCC event — and the treatment of a fellow journalist who questioned those rules — represented neither. If the Democrats truly want this convention to be a “people’s convention,” their organizers should begin treating “the people” with more dignity.