Off the Record: The Press, the Government, and the War over Anonymous Sources by Norman Pearlstine
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
First of all, Sorry Mr. Pearlstine. Bought this book for $1 at Dollar Tree, so you'll probably not see much of anything from the sale. But I can give a positive review:
In Off the Record, Norman Pearlstine makes a passionate yet reasoned plea for a change on how the government, press, and readers regard anonymous, confidential and off the record sources used in investigative journalism.
For the government, he cautions against insisting everything said be "on background" and that nearly every document be classified as secret.
For the press, he urges education on what these terms mean, getting away from the assumption that talks with government officials start off on background, and settling with sources - and editors - the ground rules for confidentiality, background and such so that everyone going into the argument knows what is expected and what the terms mean. He feels these terms are thrown around loosely and recklessly by the press and government, and thus have lost a lot of their meaning.
He also urges the press to use confidential and background sources rarely, and off the record sources not at all, in order to help rebuild trust among readers.
For readers, I think he's urging patience. The press, he acknowledges, has a lot to fix -- the words hidebound and stiffnecked were invented to describe the press, in my opinion -- so it's going to take time to fix things.
As a washed-up shell of a lazy journalist myself, I have to agree with Pearlstine. Part of the trouble lies in the fact that the pros in the business just assume that folks coming in new already know this stuff, while j-schools, for the most part, send new people into the field assuming they'll learn the ropes on the job. There's a learning/teaching vacuum among journalists that often doesn't get filled in until Robert Preston comes in a-singin' about trouble, folks, right here in River City.
The book is also a good introduction to First Amendment law, and helped me hark back to the media law class I took at the University of Idaho.
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