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A question of ethics

Recently, I received an e-mail from someone with one of the presidential campaigns. (No, I won't say who. It's utterly irrelevant.) It was polling figures, showing that their candidate was doing better than before.

But above that were three little words that irritated me.

Not for attribution:

This pushed my buttons on several fronts:

1) I have, repeatedly, expressed my contempt for polls. I don't cite them, I don't follow them, I don't give a rat's ass about them. There is one and only one poll that matters: the one with 100% actual voter participation, the one that actually determines the results.

B) I don't like stuff that is labelled "Not for attribution." If you're going to give me info, then stand behind it. I've used information from people who wanted to remain anonymous before, but in that case the person had valid reasons for wanting to remain that way. I also verified the info on that case myself before I wrote anything; my tipster merely pointed me towards the info.

III) I don't like fait accomplis. In the above case, "Skippy" e-mailed me and asked for confidentiality before offering me the info. In the more recent case, the disclaimer was right at the beginning of the info. I'm a very fast reader, so I was well beyond the notice before it registered with me.

I've had a couple temptations when this sort of thing occurs:

1) Write back a "Not for attribution: FOAD"

2) Publish the stuff anyway, saying "Joe X of the Y Campaign wants people to know this, but not to know it's from him."

In this case, I sent back a moderately polite demurral, with my reasons above outlined, then followed it up with a thank-you for giving me this topic.

So, I toss this out both to readers and other bloggers: what would you consider the appropriate response to such tips?

I've already got my answer, which I'll publish later today, but I'm curious what people think.

Comments (21)

<a href="http://www.salon.c... (Below threshold)

Salon: "In 2004, Nagourney caused a stir when he reported on a mass e-mail attacking Howard Dean from Stephanie Cutter, the spokeswoman for John Kerry's campaign, which she had sent to reporters on "background," meaning not for attribution. "If you want to send out something not for attribution, you have to negotiate it with me first," Nagourney said."

But then again George Soros could have directed me to post that on your blog, and God knows what that means...

Soros directing people to d... (Below threshold)

Soros directing people to do this and that works in a primitive arena, but he just warps the dialogue in a sophisticated society. Without his money pushing all that crap, where would it be? Where will it be when his money stops pushing all that crap?


The New York Sun's Josh Ger... (Below threshold)

The New York Sun's Josh Gerstein has the Plame Game on. Today, arguments in the civil trial start.

NFA is no better than gossi... (Below threshold)

NFA is no better than gossip. I wonder if you could program a spam filter to catch such mailings?

1. 'Off the Record' is a st... (Below threshold)

1. 'Off the Record' is a standard that both parties must agree to before the information goes off the record.

2. Traditional media may have such a convention that a simple 'not for attribution' at the top of a press release should be granted but simply adding a blogger to a mailing list doesn't constitute a negotiated agreement in my book. If Wizbang hasn't posted a policy that such language will trigger confidentiality, political staff have no grounds to assume it will.

3. That said, I'd give some slack to account for any political staffers still climbing the learning curve that is the blogosphere. Were I in your shoes, I'd reply and tell them you haven't agreed to any such thing, but you'll cut them some slack this time (and ignore it rather than report it).

Then inform them any future communications will not be treated as 'not for attribution' without establishing an explicit agreement prior to the release.

4. If they keep you on their mailing list, and keep sending unsolicited press releases, knock yerself out and feel free to identify your source as you write an editorial on what you think of it all. You've given them one freebie, and warned them about the future.

If they can't handle that, don't know the blogosphere is a different beast, or just don't care, then I'd want to know that about the campaign, and hope you do write about it.

#1 With all the evidence o... (Below threshold)

#1 With all the evidence of cheating and push-polls, you have to be stupid to believe political polls (even ones that reinforce your beliefs).

#2 Polls are more popular than ever so they must be having some effect on the population.

#1 + #2 = Regrettable conclusion: There are a lot of stupid people in the world.

Since the information was s... (Below threshold)
Steve L.:

Since the information was sent unsolicited, I wold see no problem with using it. If the campaign wante to assure confidentiality, they needed to negotiate it out first before releasing the info.

Since it's a poll, I would ... (Below threshold)

Since it's a poll, I would just ignore it. Polls are generally useless. 48% of people polled know that.
But if it were something else.... I would respond and say, "I'll write about it, but I have to attribute it." No "anonymous sources" unless there's a very valid reason, like the the one you noted.

They're just trying to get you to give them free publicity.

But this is America and it's your blog, do what you want.

You have a problem with bei... (Below threshold)

You have a problem with being manipulated, JayTea? You have a problem with people who lure you in with figures/claims they want you to publish, but will then back away from should the figures/claims be revealed as false or, worse yet, complete fabrications? You have a problem with being left 'holding the bag'?

Whatever will we do with ethical puritans like you?

Heh.Send it to me,... (Below threshold)
DJ Drummond:


Send it to me, anonymously.

Then when I publish it, you can honestly say you didn't do it, while I teach them a lesson in data security.

Heh.Send it to me,... (Below threshold)
DJ Drummond:


Send it to me, anonymously.

Then when I publish it, you can honestly say you didn't do it, while I teach them a lesson in data security.

Heh.Send it to me,... (Below threshold)
DJ Drummond:


Send it to me, anonymously.

Then when I publish it, you can honestly say you didn't do it, while I teach them a lesson in data security.

dang. Sorry for the stutte... (Below threshold)
DJ Drummond:

dang. Sorry for the stutter.

Polls are like statistics.<... (Below threshold)

Polls are like statistics.

47.6% of all statistics are simply fabricated from thin air.

I'm with Steve L; they gave... (Below threshold)

I'm with Steve L; they gave you the information without you asking for it. Publish it, say who it came from, and then laugh in their face.

Post it. The fault lies wi... (Below threshold)

Post it. The fault lies with the person or people who sent it to you. Teach them a lesson.

I have done interviews with... (Below threshold)

I have done interviews with the press as a spokeman for a division in two different fortune 500 companies. I remember one time when the corporate guy with me (aka higher up in the company) told a reporter "This is off the record" and then started to tell the reporter some facts. The reporter stopped him and said, "Hold it. Stop. It is only off the record if I agree that it is off the record."

I think the concept of something being off the record is like a contract. There is offer, acceptance and consideration. The offer in this case should have been, "I will give you some poll numbers if you agree to not attribute the source." The acceptance would have been to agree to the terms and the consideration would have been the delivery of the poll numbers.

To put it another way, if I come up to you and hand you the keys to a new luxury car and then expect you to pay me $100K for the car, would you honor the deal? 'Skippy' is trying to make a deal with you by delivering the goods with the offer.

You have no duty to honor his 'Not for attribution' as you didn't agree to it.

All that said, publishing the information hurts the candidate more than it does 'Skippy'. I would forward the email, your response and the blog post to the candidate (preferably through a channel other than 'Skippy') and let him deal with it. 'Skippy' doesn't appear to be the brightest of political operatives and needs to be counseled or winnowed from the herd.

Maybe 'not for attribution'... (Below threshold)

Maybe 'not for attribution' is the latest buzzword for meme propagation. I'm phrasing that poorly. Given that journalism has come to depend upon unsourced stories for so many of their fairy tales, maybe hanging the imprimature of secretiveness is somehow supposed to enhance its credibility, and get you to spread the word.

Perhaps it's a measure of h... (Below threshold)

Perhaps it's a measure of how pathological journalism has become. Unsourced stuff that fits the storyline is more credible than sourced information that conflicts with it. I'm not trying to claim that this generalization is universal, rather that it is an important element.

I would suggest that you ma... (Below threshold)

I would suggest that you make it known that there is no such thing as 'not for attribution' as far as you are concerned. If they send it to you, unasked, then you will immediately blow a whistle and publish it, along with a comment that the person was trying to push a story line annonymously.

At least that way, you won't have to put up with this kind of spam.

"Not for attribution" is a ... (Below threshold)

"Not for attribution" is a pretty standard thing on some of these releases; I don't know the legal ramifications of it, but quite a few reporters are willing to honor it.

I will skip my usual, rather obvious references to harlots, beds, and respect in the morning regarding much of the DC press corps and the politicians it covers.







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