It seems that for the US press what goes on the campaign stays on the campaign. At least until after the campaign. The past 48 hours have been studded with revelations kept off-the-record until the result of Tuesday’s voting was known. In some cases this relationship was quite formal and structured, in others the result of confidentiality agreements apparently struck between campaigns and individual journalists.
At the formal end of this spectrum is the deal that delivered Newsweek its seven-part series “Secrets of the 2008 Campaign”. As it has done for every campaign since Regan’s triumph in 1984, Newsweek, “detaches a team of reporters to follow the presidential candidates from announcement speech to Election Day. The deal is simple. The ‘Project’ staffers won’t report what they learn until Nov. 5; in exchange, the campaigns give us unprecedented behind-the-scenes access.”
That access bore fruit — read this highlights package prepared by Newsweek if you don’t have the time or tenacity for the full seven parts.
The revelations have an enduring fascination, providing what is as close as most of us will ever come to an insiders view of the campaign process. On that basis the Newsweek embargo is pretty easy to justify … This is the only possible route into a closed world, one that journalists would otherwise never enter and the glimpse forms a significant aspect of what will become the historical record of these events.
The revelations that have come to light thanks to the post-election liberation of the notebook of Fox News’ Carl Cameron are another thing altogether. It is thanks to Cameron, and this little basket of goodies revealed to a fascinated post-election public in this interview with Shep Smith, that we now know that Sarah Palin was: unable to name the countries joined in the North American Free Trade Agreement (there are only three); that she was “hard to control emotionally”; refused briefings for the now legendary and damaging interview with CBS anchor Katie Couric and was apparently unaware for much of the duration of her tilt at the US vice-presidency that Africa was a continent, not just another country.
“I wish I could have told you at the time,” Cameron explained, “but all of it was put off the record until after the election.”
And there we have it, that an individual journalist determined that the knowledge that the woman who might events willing become the US vice-president was an unstable prima-donna with only as nodding acquaintance with fundamental geography. Never mind that she had first hand evidence of the existence of Russia.
This should concern us all, and is a live question in the conduct of journalism in all corners of the globe. The fact that these Palin revelations were suppressed — and that’s probably the best word for it — by a representative of Murdoch’s Fox News adds another dimension.
This discussion of what is and might be off-the-record had an Australian focus last year with the “Costello dinner” revelations eventually revealed only because some in that off the record secret dinner party were about to break ranks. Then we had the case of the Costello memoir and the unedifying spectacle of senior political journalists agreeing to suppress — that word again — their knowledge of Peter Costello’s political intentions to keep faith with a book publicity contract.
Now we have an individual journalist deciding to keep from the world the certain proof that Sarah Palin was a candidate of limited schooling, restraint and intellect. That’s not a decision that any journalist worth their salt should take. If the consequence of breaking that off-the-record agreement is either ostracism from the campaign or the opprobrium of one peers than that is a price the ought in any conscience be paid for revealing the truth.
That we, and more importantly the voters of the United States, were denied it is worrying indeed.