Davos08: What happens in Davos stays in Davos?

I continue to wonder whether off-the-record can work anymore.

At a closed Davos session, I witnessed a bizarre anti-American meltdown by a government official. It went on for sometime before I finally had it and called this person on it, saying that the rant was anti-American and that I was offended. I’m not telling you anything more — including what else I said — so as not to identify the official because the session was off the record, as I was firmly reminded by a WEF person and as the moderator reminded the room five seconds after the event (which is to say that they knew this was newsworthy). The rule is clear and I’m respecting it.

But the next day, the official’s outburst was the topic du jour among all the dozens of people at the meeting and they talked about it with more people. And all those people are powerful: journalists, media executives, business titans, government officials. So the off-the-record rule is no shield for a brain fart. The people who witnessed it could and very well may affect that official’s career.

The argument for making things off-the-record is that participants will feel freer to talk and to be candid. And that seems to make sense. But at a place like Davos, you’re still talking among people who can affect policy, business, brand, media, and careers. And they talk. Just because it’s not in the press or on blogs doesn’t mean such a lapse won’t have an impact.

Now add to this the live nature of media today. Someone could have broadcast that moment live or Twittered it as it happened. No one in that room did or likely would because we all want to be invited back to Davos. Yes, that motivates me to follow the rule. But at any other event that is supposed to be off the record, there is surely someone in the room who won’t care. And once it’s out online, it’s out.

All this is further confused because my own policy is that I am generally on the record — my life is an open blog — unless I label something, which I try to do to be clear and which usually involves someone else’s information or privacy I want to respect. This had an impact on a session I moderated, which fell under the off-the-record cloak. But I said I was on the record and at least one other person piped in and said she is always on as well. Then someone who didn’t pipe up got quoted on a blog (no big deal, by the way). So it’s hard to know who and what are off-the-record nowadays without a scorecard.

Life is simply becoming more public. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

  • Perhaps a discussion of when “off the record” is a valid approach might be in order. It would seem the primary purpose is to influence the media while covering one’s tracks. This can be both positive or negative.

    For example when a whistleblower is trying to influence the media into digging into a story which is not being reported. Keeping the source confidential aids in uncovering the rest of the story.

    The background meetings held by government officials are the other side of the coin. They want to influence coverage (or forestall lines of investigation) by making reporters feel special or privileged or by hampering their investigation which would require using information obtained “on background”.

    If the press, which has no special security clearance, can be told things, then why shouldn’t the public at large hear it as well?

    Why do reporters allow themselves to become pawns in partisan political maneuvering anyway?

    Did Novak spill the beans on Valerie Plame because he wanted to show of his insider connections? Or because he was doing the bidding of friends of his within the administration? Perhaps he doesn’t quite know his motivation himself.

  • Cooler Heads

    What a load of crap. Like it’s OK for the super-rich and “in-the-know” types to cluck about all this when a powerful person has a meltdown, but god forbid the rabble gets word of it.

    And you buy into it. Jeff, I expected better from you. But now you’re just like them–protecting your pass into the glittery world of Davos by keeping the secret and enjoying your better-than-the-rest-of-us sense of self.

    And you call yourself a journalist. You should be ashamed.

  • Not-so-cool:
    I’m not liking it either. I’m fully and forthrightly confessing my actions and motives.
    Off-the-record is an issue all over, not just in the rarified air of Davos.
    My point, I hope you can see, is that OTR will become more and more pointless. I may not reveal something here but things get revealed.
    One knows when going to Davos and other events — and when having conversations with friends, you know — that things are off the record. I may not like it but it’s an agreement and I’ll abide by that. Not to would, too, be dishonorable.

  • Cooler Heads

    Jeff, then why serve up the titillating suggestion here that “you know something we don’t know?” Either you can talk about it, or you can’t. But to tell everyone you know things, and then not say what is kind self-serving, smug, and serves no one but you. It also serves to tell those self-absorbed folks at Davos that you REALLY are one of them, not one the rabble.

    You can’t have it both ways. Either report what you know, or don’t.

  • “Life is simply becoming more public. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”

    Possibly. I think it can go one of two ways. Living our lives in public might persuade people to be more careful, more polite, more considerate…just nicer because everything we do and say will be On The Record. Alternatively, the constant evidence of how deplorably people behave in public might persuade everyone that the bar for acceptable behaviour is really that low and let everyone off the hook. To take for a moment the pessimistic view, reality TV and Hello Magazine seem to indicate that people don’t especially improve their behaviour because they’re on camera. We take our cues as to what’s acceptable or normal behaviour from the people around us. I’m not sure a society with everything On The Record is going to be a better place to live.

  • I think whether or not to break an off the record agreement depends on the importance of what was said and who said it. A journalist in your position needs to ask if what was witnessed was more important than your desire to return to Davos. If you’re sitting on a big story because you want to go back to Davos, that’s a big problem.

    I know many journalists who make it a policy not to participate in off the record sessions for these very reasons.

  • “I finally had it and called this person on it, saying that the rant was anti-American and that I was offended.”

    Without revealing what this was about, what do you include as “anti-American”? Is it ok to raise an issue about George Bush? sometimes this seems easier for US citizens than in the UK. The Official Secrets Act appears to prevent UK reporting of recent court cases and al Jazeera in the same story though this is ok in the USA.

    So is there some range of comment that you would not want to challenge? Sometimes this term “ani0-American” seems a bit sweeping.

  • I think this incident goes to a more fundamental problem for all journalists that has existed forever: When to say “no” to good information because the conditions applied to it are too onerous.

    No matter what journalism schools and textbooks say, there is no hard and fast rule here other than “you must keep your word at all costs.”

    The “off the record” rule I use is to tell sources that I will never disclose their name or affiliation, but that I don’t want information where the mention of the information itself blows their cover.

    The other rule I try to stick to is the one Jeff talks about here. In my opinion, off the record doesn’t apply to debates in front of rooms full of people. Philosophically it’s oxymoronic. And practically it’s a disaster. If somebody says something newsworthy, attendees always talk. That means a journalist who didn’t attend can report that which you witnessed and cannot report.

    But information is currency, and at Davos the rules of engagement are clear. So journalists are left choosing whether they want half a loaf – OTR with an audience – or no loaf at all.

    I know what I would have done. I learn as much watching body language, seeing who is in the audience, and what isn’t said at these things as I do from the actual debate itself. So I would have accepted the restrictions, gone to the panel and put myself in exactly the same position Jeff is in now.

  • Jeff – I don’t think the bilaterals will be on the record…and there is something to be said for the freedom to speak without having to be held to account.

    Cooler Heads – Davos is not glittery – just check into the piano bar at the Hotel Europe and have your illusions shattered.

  • Cooler Heads

    I think that when you enter Davos you either play by their rules–or not. And then live with the full ramifications of your decision.

    But this kind of half-and-half stuff is really disingenuous and self-serving. If you claim to be someone demanding transparency, calling for a more public life, saying that it’s time for gatekeepers to let the citizens have their say, then do it and be it.

    How about transparency at Davos? Or do the world’s rich and powerful get a free pass on that?

  • Robert

    – Off-the-record is a pain, but let’s be practical. It has its uses at times in the service of getting information into the public eye. You can rail against the rule, but if someone insists on it, you have to respect it. If you can still deliver news that people want to know, then this is the way to do it. I’m not saying it’s right, but it serves the public, usually without injuring it.

    – Off-the-record at Davos is a farce. Powerful people affect the world, but don’t want to tie to themselves the responsibility and stand up for their actions and deals. It also furthers the notion that the well heeled can affect the madding crowd’s lives without having to mix with them. It also reveals the irony at the heart of power: people who shape public policy are misanthropes. Sweet!

    – Jeff does not have it both ways by bringing up the issue without revealing the nature. To not write about the absurdity is to perpetuate its lifespan.

    – Stuffy theorizing aside, I am dying to know what on earth was the nature of the rant!

  • Chinaski


    I wonder if you should technically even post what you did if you were at an off-the-record event. OTR to me means what’s said in the room stays in the room, not if you want to talk about something in the room, don’t attach a name to it. If you don’t want to particpate don’t, but if you do, respect what I’m guessing was intended by your friends at WEF.

  • Sydney Schanberg

    Let’s try a hypothetical: A reporter trespasses on a corporation’s property because sources have told him that the company. at night, is dumping toxic waste into a river that borders its property. The reporter witnesses the dumping and exits the property. He knows he can be prosecuted and possibly jailed for trespassing, but he decides that his obligation to his readers, who could be sickened or worse by the pollution, overrides his social contract to obey the trespass law. So, accepting jail as a possibility, he writes the story.

    Mr. Jarvis considered the consequences and decided not to write his story. He says it was the honorable thing to do. This needs a larger discussion.
    Did Jarvis base his decision by examining the weight of the story and concluding it wasn’t important enough to break the Davos event’s off-the-record rule? Then perhaps he shouldn’t have teased his readers with the revelation that the story was about an “anti-American meltdown” by “a government official” who was apparently not from the United States. He invites us to applaud his nobility by telling us he stood up as an aggrieved American and berated the speaker — but he clearly wants someone else to write the story. I’ve been in such predicaments and my experiences tell me that you can’t have it both ways. You have to decide on which side honor lies — for you.

    Question: What does Mr. Jarvis advise his jourmalism students to do in such situations? .

    Another Question: Could I be wrong in thinking his description of the incident carries hints of an apology for his decision not to write the story?

    Syd Schanberg

  • Honored to have a comment from you, Syd.

    I think the story here is the question of the fate of off-the-record and that’s the discussion I was hoping to bring out and succeeded.

    The moment itself was pretty much just silliness, not of great import. At worst, it was boggling. At best, amusing So, yes, I made that judgment. And because it was OTR, you are forced to trust me with that judgment or not.

    I’m sure you have made that judgment many times as well. Even at a personal level of family members or neighbors telling us things, we as journalists and brothers and neighbors decide not to violate a confidence or we decide we should. Nothing terribly new and earthshattering there. Beat reporters deal with this all the time. They sure as hell do it when they use anonymous sources.

    What interests me about this is not the odd performance but the nature of OTR in a world of instant communication and networks.

    By the way, long ago in my career, when I interviewed with you at the Times, you ended it telling me that I should not tell my friends that I had the opportunity to talk with you. I violated that confidence.I confess.

  • Chinaski

    The nature of OTR shouldn’t change weather we are in an age of tying rocks around notes or the current age of instant communication. You either respect it or you don’t.

    As for the hypothetical of spying on a company that dumps toxic waste, well the company didn’t invite you there off the record to watch them dump toxic waste so that is not really a valid arguement or comparison.

    Geez, guys this isn’t that tough.

  • Chinaski

    The nature of OTR shouldn’t change whether we are in an age of tying rocks around notes or the current age of instant communication. You either respect it or you don’t.

    As for the hypothetical of spying on a company that dumps toxic waste, well the company didn’t invite you there off the record to watch them dump toxic waste so that is not really a valid arguement or comparison.

    Geez, this isn’t that tough.

  • “I finally had it and called this person on it, saying that the rant was anti-American and that I was offended.”

    Hmm, did you stand up for us old Europeans, too, when Cheney ranted about us being irrelvant? I can’t find in your Archives (seems like they don’t go back long enough. Hmm, when was the buzzmachine started?)

    Generally, me thinks many of you Americans are surprisingly thin skinned, considering they don’t care when they arrogantly put other nations down. But if someone dares to criticize the US, not matter how factually correct and rightly, boohoohoo! Call the Wahahaaambulance! Discrimination!

  • Paul Rothwell

    For while now I’ve taken it as a given that Life is becoming more public and that there’s nothing we can do about it. But actually, after reading your article I realized that Power Centers today, as throughout History, will do what they always do, ie; Control knowledge and information, designating what suits them as “Good” and what doesn’t as “Bad” and the rest as “Off limits.” They’re certainly not operating out of a passion for knowledge. That’s for Philosophers and Free Spirits who can’t be bought. No, the Power Centers primary purpose is to control information to serve their own interests. And if, in the Information Age, their nefarious ways do become public, then they’ll behave according to type and do what Power Centers have always done, ie; Dismiss the accusation with a shrug and accuse the Accuser, or worse.

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