Last Friday, Toronto Star reporter Daniel Dale dropped what he accurately described as a “NAFTA BOMBSHELL.” He acquired off-the-record quotes that U.S. President Donald Trump had made to journalists at another outlet, Bloomberg News, during an interview about the current NAFTA negotiations.
In the leaked remarks, Trump claimed that he had Canada at his mercy in the high-stakes trade talks. As Dale reported, Trump told Bloomberg’s reporters that any deal with Canada would be “totally on our terms.” He also said that he needed to be off the record with his victorious brags, because if he put them on the record, “it’s going to be so insulting they’re not going to be able to make a deal.”
This proved accurate, as a potential deal was waylaid and talks extended past the Friday deadline.
Trump quickly attacked Bloomberg via Twitter for betraying him (and in doing so, confirmed the accuracy of Dale’s reporting). Dale then came to Bloomberg’s defence — or at least to the defence of the specific Bloomberg journalists who interviewed Trump and agreed to his off-the-record terms.
Wow, I made OFF THE RECORD COMMENTS to Bloomberg concerning Canada, and this powerful understanding was BLATANTLY VIOLATED. Oh well, just more dishonest reporting. I am used to it. At least Canada knows where I stand!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 31, 2018
Still can’t believe that Bloomberg violated a firm OFF THE RECORD statement. Will they put out an apology?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 1, 2018
I’d said I wasn’t going to say anything about my source for the quotes Trump made off the record to Bloomberg.
However, I don’t want to be party to the president’s smearing of excellent, ethical journalists. So I can say this: none of the Bloomberg interviewers was my source.
— Daniel Dale (@ddale8) September 1, 2018
Dale was very specific in his language — why not say that Bloomberg was not the source of the leak? Could someone else at Bloomberg have passed him the quotes? Or is it possible that Trump himself, or someone else at the White House, leaked the remarks to Dale?
The whole episode also raises the issue of how Trump and the media that covers him use the status of off-the-record itself. If Trump is unilaterally dictating which things he says are on the record and which are off… well, that’s not how it’s supposed to work.
I had questions, so I shot Dale an email, expecting a reply in a week or so, once he was out of the current media firestorm. To my surprise, he shot back immediately, and was able to hop on a call for a quick interview, where he answered my questions, mostly.
The interview will be included on next Monday’s CANADALAND podcast, which will be a deep dive into what “off the record” is, and how it’s used, abused, and misunderstood.
But for now, here’s the audio and a lightly edited transcript of my chat with Daniel Dale.
Daniel, why do you think — whoever your source was for this — why do you think they took it to you?
You know, I can’t talk about that without providing hints as to the identity of the source. So I just, I just have to decline to comment.
I’m not gonna put you in that position, I won’t ask you to give me anything that might identify your source here. I think that the reason why we’re talking about this today is that you sort of… You have brought to public scrutiny this very nerdy journalistic question of what “off the record” is, what it means. I think it’s really widely misunderstood. Would you hazard any kind of a definition of that? Like, if you had to kind of tell somebody outside of the business what “off the record” actually is, what would you say?
So “off the record” means that you cannot use the material in any way. The default for an interview is on-the-record, and that’s [where] everyone knows that the person is talking and you’re gonna print it or you’re gonna air it. Somewhere in between off-the-record and on-the-record is “on background,” which means that you can publish the comments but would not attribute [them] to them by name. You might say, “a senior government official,” for example. But off-the-record is, “This is off limits. It’s not going anywhere at all.”
So with these comments that I got, Bloomberg had interviewed Trump and agreed that these particular remarks would be off the record. But I made no such agreement. I was not in this interview; I made no promises to the president. So when I independently obtained these quotes, I didn’t feel bound by their promises, and I felt okay to publish.
Now I want to just scrutinize one aspect of this that I haven’t heard anyone question: that off-the-record must be negotiated. Would you agree? It’s not enough for a source to say, “By the way, off the record, I murdered a guy last night.” And then expect the journalist to keep that off the record.
The journalist has to have opportunity to agree, “Yes, I will receive this information, and I won’t use it.” I mean, I’m right about that understanding?
You’re absolutely right. And I had an example of that with the White House trying to respond to these comments that I obtained. They sent me an e-mail saying, “Off the record, such and such.” It was nothing important. But that’s not how it works. You can’t just send someone an email and say, “Off the record.” And that happens sometimes in practice, because journalists may have a personal relationship with the source and there may be an understanding developed over time that there’s sort of a de facto blanket — “You know, whenever I say ‘off the record,’ I trust you that it’s gonna be off the record.” But that shouldn’t be how it works, and especially where there’s no existing relationship, like between me and the White House spokespeople, that’s definitely not how it works.
Yeah. My question is about Bloomberg’s behaviour. Trump is saying, “Hey, we had an off-the-record agreement,” and they’re saying, “Yeah, we had that agreement.” I’m just wondering if that negotiation ever took place, because for the president to ask a journalist, “This is gonna be off the record” — you would hope that the journalist’s follow-up question would be, “Well I’m sorry, Mr. President, but before I can agree to that, I need to know what this concerns,” because there’s all kinds of things that a president might say to a journalist that a journalist would not be able to keep off the record. By the transcripts that were provided, it seems like Trump was just flipping a switch and unilaterally said, “Hey, this next thing about Canada, it’s off the record.”
He was. He was, I could tell. And so I don’t know what the ground rules they set going in were. So I don’t know if there was a conversation, for example, where the president said, “Look, I’m gonna flip on-the-record to off-the-record. And if I say anything is off the record, you have to agree that that’s off the record.” And did Bloomberg say yes to something like that? I don’t know.
But to me, it is an odd situation. Like, judging from the transcript, this is the most powerful person in the world, who seems to be unilaterally declaring things off the record without specific agreement on each one. And I think that there should be a conversation about whether that’s a good decision by the journalist interviewing him or whether that’s appropriate at all.
I’m gonna suggest that they would never in a million years say, “Mr. President, you can go off the record whenever you want.” I’m gonna suggest that that was the de facto understanding between them and that it is something that they honoured, because if they ever burned him, they would lose access completely. And I would further suggest that this is not best practice.
That’s possible. I think what they were doing may well not have been best practice. But I just don’t know what their understanding was. So I wouldn’t feel comfortable venturing an opinion either way.
Are there circumstances, Daniel, under which you would break an off-the-record agreement? And I understand this is not a circumstance where you had any obligation to keep the information you received off the record. But there are circumstances where journalists feel like it is ethical to break that understanding.
What would those be for you?
For me, I mean, your semi-comedic example of, you know, “Off the record, I murdered someone last night.” Even if I promised the person I was gonna be off the record… You know, if they’re confessing to a crime — which could happen, and it might not be murder; it might be, you know, some [other] sort of offence — I think I would feel, you know, a moral obligation to report that to the authorities, depending on what it was.
Also, if the source was lying to me, and it was clear that it was on purpose. So if they said, “Off the record, you know, I’ve decided…” Oh, I don’t even know what the example would be. But there are times when people, when sources, lie to you. And if it was clear that I was being manipulated by the source, who was using off-the-record to play some game — I think I would give serious thought to burning them and to violating the agreement, because they would have violated the spirit of it.
Now, here’s a question for you: You did accept this information with some version of off-the-record and confidentiality. Whoever gave you this leak, you offered them confidentiality, correct?
Now if that source were to then publicly blame someone else for leaking the information, would that be a violation of that agreement? For example, it has been suggested that your source on this was President Trump himself. And then he went on to blame Bloomberg for breaking off-the-record when he’s the one who leaked this to you. If he did that, he would arguably be in bad faith with you and not just with Bloomberg, in which case… Am I going down a crazy rabbit hole here? Can you just say, unilaterally, was Trump your source on this?
It’s not a crazy rabbit hole, but I’m gonna have to be cagey and not directly responsive on this, because I just don’t wanna get into this game of saying who it was and wasn’t, except to say that Trump is wrong when he said that it was the Bloomberg reporters. You know, I made the sort of unusual decision to not identify the source but to say who it wasn’t, because I think Trump, he was using the information that I obtained to try to besmirch the reputation of people who had nothing to do with it. And so I can say it wasn’t them: anyone who promised him that it would be off the record did not violate their promise. But I just can’t go further than that.
You know — and I’m not gonna to ask you to go further than that — but I am gonna point out that people have criticized you, or at least they followed up with you, to say, “Daniel, that’s very specific wording you’re using there.” You’re not saying Bloomberg didn’t leak it; you’re saying that those specific reporters — and I believe you also said their editor — they didn’t leak it. Nobody who promised him off-the-record leaked it. Which leaves open the possibility that somebody else at Bloomberg, which… You know, we’re talking about bad faith on the part of the source, but there’s also a possibility of bad faith on the part of journalists. Like, “Oh, I promised the president off-the-record, but I’m gonna give this to my colleague, he’s gonna leak it to Daniel Dale, and then my hands are clean.”
I completely understand what you’re saying. It’s just like, you know, it’s weird for me to be in a position where I feel like a politician — where I am not just answering the question straight up. But just in the interest of protecting the source, I have to be cagey. I’ve seen a variety of wildly absurd theories of various kinds about who it was and why they did it. But I just can’t say either way.
I hear you. Either you’re being just super, super solid about not engaging in this kind of guessing game, or you’re unable to exclude President Trump himself for other reasons, and it would go against my promise to you in asking you for this interview to inquire any further about that. So let’s just leave that.
Okay. Thanks, Jesse.
Daniel, anything else you want to say about this controversy that you’ve brought up? Everyone’s suddenly discussing this kind of journalism-school question of “off the record.” I mean, there’s a basic question of media literacy, between on-background, off-the-record, the rules — and as we pointed out, the rules themselves are often broken, and they’re not often understood by the people who provide information when they say, “I’m going off the record.” I’m sure, as you observe this debate, it’s with some opinion and some comment about what everybody’s saying. Anything you want to share?
Yeah, I’ll say a couple of things. One is that this type of story, in which someone believes they are off the record but then another outlet that is not party to the off-the-record agreement reports it, is done all the time in Washington. So this is unusual with Trump, in a Trump interview. But, for example, there are lots of, you know, like an off-the-record salon with a newsmaker, where — Peter Baker at The New York Times, a great reporter, is known for this. He will obtain interesting information from those sessions and report it. So this happens.
I’ll also say that I think we should be more cautious and sparing in our use of [off-the-record], especially with the President of the United States. I think you can make an argument that he should never be off the record. You know, everything he says is newsworthy. If he doesn’t want to say something to the public, then he shouldn’t say it at all.
And also, just sort of advocating for my own story. I think what’s most important here is the substance of this story. And I think it’s in Trump’s interest to make this a media-ethics debate. And I think it’s a good media-ethics debate, and I’m glad you’re asking about it. But I think we shouldn’t get lost in all this and forget what his actual comments were. Which I think is what’s most significant here.