March 11, 2008

Constituent order, interview etiquette, and being a monster

Barack Obama's presidential campaign suffered a major embarrassment just before last weekend, and it started right here in Edinburgh, when Gerri Peev of The Scotsman newspaper got an interview with Samantha Power, the 37-year-old Irish-born writer who walked away from a teaching job at Harvard to become an unpaid campaign adviser to Obama. Interviewing her in London, Peev asked about the primary result in Ohio, and Power blurted out:

"We fucked up in Ohio. In Ohio, they are obsessed and Hillary is going to town on it, because she knows Ohio's the only place they can win. She is a monster, too — that is off the record; she is stooping to anything."

What would you have done with that sentence if you were an ambitious Gerri Peev and you had caught it on your recorder, with that afterthought "that is off the record" dropped in the middle there?

What The Scotsman decided to do was to print it, and in fact headline it. The request for off-the-record status was ignored, and the remark was directly attributed (with the quotation tag line "Ms Power said, hastily trying to withdraw her remark").

Michelle Tsai, in a Slate magazine article about verbal practices in going off the record, said:

Power would have been on less-shaky ground had she switched the order of her words and said, "This is off the record — she is a monster, too," instead of, "She is a monster, too — that is off the record."

I think Tsai is right, except that it's constituent structure as well as word order. Here the syntactic structure really matters. There is a key difference between The following is off the record: Hillary is a monster on the one hand and Hillary is a monster; that is off the record on the other. The following somewhat clearer contrast is of the same sort:

  1. Hillary is a monster — that's what people are saying.
  2. People are saying that Hillary is a monster.

In the first of these, the utterer could reasonably be claimed to have actually said that Hillary is a monster. The part after the dash comes across as a sort of excuse or citation of support for the remark. In the second, it would not be reasonable to make that claim: what is being said is clearly about people, and about what they are saying. The difference is what's in the main clause (or the more subtle semantic matter of what is foregrounded in the sense of being the most salient proposition conveyed), not simply of what comes first.

Even with a form like "This is off the record — she is a monster", one would be taking an insane gamble. I would have thought everyone knew that requests to go off the record have to be announced and agreed to up front. It was a prominent turning point of the plot in the film All the President's Men. Ask first if you can be guaranteed off-the-record status. If the answer is a firm yes, and you trust the reporter, then spill the beans. But say nothing unquotable until you get the reporter's OK. It should be more like this:

Power: I need this next bit to be off the record. I'm giving it to you for your private information: it will help you to put things in context but it's not for print. I need your promise and your editor's promise that you won't quote me in the story, or elsewhere, OK? Otherwise this interview is over. 'Cause if you use it they will fire my ass quicker than greased lightning. Do you understand that, Gerri?

Peev: Umm... Couldn't I just say, "An adviser told me privately..."?

Power: No! What are those ugly pink things on the sides of your head, ears or what? Listen to me! You promise not to use it, or I don't tell you, OK?

Peev: Oh, all right, spoilsport. Just tell me so I get the general picture. I promise I won't quote it. I'll go to jail rather than tell on you.

Power: OK. So don't tell ANYone I said this, but Hillary is a freakin' monster. She'll stoop to anything. It's like running a campaign against an alligator that won't release its tax returns.

That's what it should have been like. Schoolgirls gossiping in a playground know how to swear people to secrecy. The rules for journalists are basically the same, except that schoolgirls are not quite so nasty and ruthless. I certainly don't approve of what Gerri Peev or The Scotsman did: I think the reporter was a snake and the paper acted like a cheap scandal sheet. (I know, some people are saying it was in the public interest to have this known because we should be made aware that Obama has some advisers who are not yet seasoned enough to survive in the fierce and dangerous ecology of a presidential campaign, let alone a presidential administration; but I'm not buying it. This was gossip.)

But Ms Power has herself to blame. She handed the scoop away; she doomed herself. It was like leaving her car keys in, the engine running, and the door open. You don't do that if you want the car to be there when you come back out of the liquor store.

If Ms Power didn't know the rules about going off the record, but was arrogant enough to be trying to function in a US presidential campaign context, then she's a fool. A monster. And that is off the record, by the way. Don't tell anyone you read it on Language Log.

P.S.: The Scotsman has appended to its article a statement of its off-the-record policy:

WHEN is off the record actually off the record? When the rules are established in advance.
Journalists are always looking for knowledge and want the information they receive to be available for publication.
But occasionally an interviewer will accept an exchange is "off the record" and that the conversation is not attributable. Remarks can be used as background to inform a journalist's article.
If a conversation is to be off the record, that agreement is usually thrashed out before the interview begins. Sometimes, public figures say something and then attempt to retract it by insisting it was "off the record" after the event.
But by then it is too late, particularly if it is in the public interest that the story be published.
In this instance, Samantha Power was promoting her book and it was established in advance that the interview was on the record.

One may not admire them for this (Scottish readers are split down the middle about whether to condemn the paper for privacy intrusion and campaign meddling or praise it as a national treasure for informing us all), but what they say about the usual policy is basically accurate.

And (good news) Samantha Power may not have lost her main job: she reportedly took leave from her Harvard position rather than resigning from it. And she is also a Time magazine columnist . Her life is not over. She will survive.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at March 11, 2008 10:21 AM