Off the Record: The Press, the Government, and the War over Anonymous Sources

By Norman Pearlstine

When Norman Pearlstine—as editor in chief of Time Inc.—agreed to give prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald a reporter’s notes of a conversation with a “confidential source,” he was vilified for betraying the freedom of the press. But in this hard-hitting inside story, Pearlstine shows that “Plamegate” was not the clear case it seemed to be—and that confidentiality has become a weapon in the White House’s war on the press, a war fought with the unwitting complicity of the press itself.

Watergate and the publication of the Pentagon Papers are the benchmark incidents of government malfeasance exposed by a fearless press. But as Pearlstine explains with great clarity and brio, the press’s hunger for a new Watergate has made reporters vulnerable to officials who use confidentiality to get their message out, even if it means leaking state secrets and breaking the law. Prosecutors appointed to investigate the government have investigated the press instead; news organizations such as The New York Times have defended the principle of confidentiality at all costs—implicitly putting themselves above the law. Meanwhile, the use of unnamed sources has become common in everything from celebrity weeklies to the so-called papers of record.

What is to be done? Pearlstine calls on Congress to pass a federal shield law protecting journalists from the needless intrusions of government; at the same time, he calls on the press to name its sources whenever possible. Off the Record is a powerful argument with the vividness and narrative drive of the best long-form journalism; it is sure to spark controversy among the people who run the government—and among the people who tell their stories.

About the Author

Norman Pearlstine, editor in chief of Time Inc. from 1995 to 2005, was previously the managing editor of The Wall Street Journal; he trained as a lawyer before making his career as a journalist. He is now a senior adviser to the Carlyle Group. He lives in Manhattan.

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1st edition (June 26, 2007)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

From Booklist

Review

How journalism handles anonymous sources, and what’s been wrong with that
Norman Pearlstine was until 2005 editor-in-chief of Time, Inc., the entire stable of Time’s magazines, from Time itself through Fortune, Sports Illustrated and many others on to People (which Pearlstine says often does the best job in handling sources) and more.

As editor-in-chief at that time, he had the ultimate call on how to handle special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald’s subpoena of both Time writer Matt Cooper and Time, Inc., followed by Judge Thomas Hogan’s civil contempt finding when Time, Inc. and Cooper were initially recalcitrant.

First, Pearlstine knows his editorial chops. Before moving to the Time stable, he was managing editor of the Wall Street Journal. And, he knows his legal issues, too, having obtained a law degree.

As such, he carefully nuanced his company’s response to various steps in the legal process before the Supreme Court finally refused to hear the appeal from the appellate court level.

At that point, he decided his company and Cooper had to obey the subpoena, even if he didn’t totally like it. Immediately, journalistic critics from inside the field descended like locusts, calling Pearlstine a sellout to the TimeWarner board of directors, shareholders, etc. That was in spite of the fact that, when countered what they would do in a similar situation themselves, most the critics either refused to respond or said they would have done what he did.

Pearlstine in large part faults reporters and journalistic entities, especially those inside the Beltway, for bringing this problem on themselves. While he doesn’t hit it as hard as he could have, he picks up on the issue of journalists running with the Fourth Estate idea to consider themselves stars, and ultimate becoming a quasi-political part of the problem.

Beyond that, he notes many journalists are sloppy about granting confidentiality too freely and too quickly, not discussing carefully, and relatively early in the sourcing progress, what level of attributional confidentiality the source wants and the reporter is willing to give, and not distinguishing between confidential sources, and true, reporter subpoena-resisting anonymous sources. (Pearlstine found, independently of Karl Rove’s lawyer saying he had never asked for anonymity, that Rove was indeed not an anonymous source, and that Matt Cooper was guilty of some of the errors laid out above.)

Short of a SCOTUS revisiting of Branzburg (which, given the current Court, could be disastrous), Pearlstine says the need for a federal shield law is paramount. He discusses various attempts that have recently been put through Congress, and the hostility of the Bush Administration to even a mild, loophole-filled version.

Beyond that, Pearlstine is refreshing for his challenge to his own, and my own, profession. He clearly states that a shield law should not be absolute, that reporter-source sourcing agreements are a contract of sorts, that the ultimate call on changing their terms belongs to sources and not reporters, and that many reporters, above all investigative reporters, need to be on a tighter editorial leash, citing former New York Times reporter Judith Miller as Exhibit No. 1.

In short, if you want a great look at how today’s Beltway journalism operates, followed by a prescription for how it should operate, this book is a winner.

the minutia of modern politics and the law

This is an important book. Part memoir and part explanation, “Off the Record” documents the Karl Rove affair from the perspective of Norman Pearlstine, boss of Time Inc. at the time, who was vilified for turning over records to a government investigation and thus supposedly violating journalism values esteemed since Watergate. Except it wasn’t so simple, as this book makes clear in an entertaining and engaging manner.

Pearlstine trained as both lawyer and journalist and had a powerful career, including managing editor of the Wall Street Journal, before his 10-year post with Time Inc.

At Time Inc. Pearlstine was responsible for major magazines including Time, People, Sports Illustrated, Entertainment Weekly, and Fortune. The Karl Rove affair occurred when someone’s wife was “leaked” to be a CIA employee, and a government investigator was assigned to determine if laws had been broken. No espionage law was found to have been violated; but a government employee was indicted for false testimony in front of a grand jury.

The case was confusing and involved the minutia of modern politics and the law. Pearlstine reveals how inadequate were journalistic standards of the time for use of anonymous and confidential sources; also how widespread the use of deliberate “leaks”. The appendix includes Pearlstine’s new standards for editors and reporters for modern media including online as well as broadcast and print. In a brilliant and readable review, the author explains the differences in the romance of Watergate from the issues at play in Plamegate – including criminal vs. civil contempt and corporate vs. personal citations by a ruling court.

Until this book, I had no idea of the important connection between legal savvy and journalistic savvy. What seemed to be trivial minutia turned out to be important distinctions, and Pearlstine explains them well. In the aftermath of the Karl Rove affair, more and more journalists came to appreciate the difficulty of the decision Pearlstine faced, and to empathize if not agree with him.

I enjoyed this book because it is well written by a man with passion and intelligence. He has a good story to tell and good points to make. I have a new appreciation with which to follow modern political and legal debates being worked out in the public and not-so-public domains. I can’t help but wonder what Pearlstine will be up to next: he handed Time Inc. over to his planned successor in 2005 before writing this book.

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