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Implications of Backstage Talk

Backstage conversations are ubiquitous and seemingly innocuous, but their aftermath can seriously influence opinions, harm reputations and sabotage negotiations. At the same time, backstage talk helps journalists to anticipate developments, make better-informed news decisions and evaluate what is publicized. One reporter defines his responsibility to the public as “painting as clear a picture as possible, and as complete a picture as possible,” (Interview, LCA reporter, May 18, 2010) which to him requires information not readily available and publishable. One TV reporter in the LP said that behind-the-scene information was “elementary from the viewpoint that I can assess the general situation and specific issues much better because of it” (Interview, LP reporter, May 30, 2012). Although the reluctance of political actors to go on-the-record—which has grown over time in New York, according to senior LCA reporters—is a protective strategy, it sometimes backfires to them in the form of rumor mills and being confronted with backstage-informed questions that are more difficult to anticipate.

Most accountability journalism is impossible without backstage confidentiality and anonymous sourcing. The central myth of US journalism, Watergate, is the most obvious example of this. One particularly prosaic LP reporter was dismissive of the mythical qualities of iconic investigative journalistic efforts, including Watergate:

I think the public has the wrong impression. It’s always the portrayal of the brave investigative journalist who finds out about something, also in Hollywood movies. In reality it’s virtually always the case—and the same goes for Watergate—that [journalists] need sources who give away something on their own initiative. ... If we are honest, these great investigative achievements are based on betrayal of a person entrusted with confidential information. That makes the whole thing a little less impressive. (Interview,

LP reporter, November 24, 2011)

As mentioned earlier, the main negative implication of backstage talk is manipulation: spin that affects journalists’ beliefs and interpretations of the truth, that raises their attention under the pretension of secrecy, or that makes them compliant under the appearance of intimacy. In the final sense, sources pursue secondary objectives in trying to generate a sense of closeness with a reporter when talking off-the-record. Another negative (intended or unintended) consequence is that backstage talk sets rumor mills in motion, which are at greater risk to be revealed in a news environment pervaded by low-publication-threshold outlets, that is, blogs and Twitter.

The ethics of source protection and conventions of confidentiality in reporter-source relationships have the ironic effect that, in cases where unattributed information proves to have no factual basis at all, sources are not held publicly accountable for it. Partly because of this, the reporter often lets sources go off-the-record conditionally, negotiating terms before they hear them out. One TV reporter in Albany, who operated like a print reporter regarding backstage talk off camera, told me that because of the logic of her medium negotiations about on- and off-the-record were more complex:

If they say “this is off-the-record“ and I know that it can’t be off-the-record, then I say “it can’t be off-the-record.” And so they can chose either to continue talking or they don’t have to tell me and just find someone else. So. But if they say: “Off-the-record,” I’ll let them know if it’s ok that it’s off the record. I’ll say: “OK.” If not then I’ll say: “I really need you to tell me this on the record.” And you can haggle with them. (Interview, LCA reporter, April 22, 2010)

Off-the-record information can become a gag order seriously impeding the reporting process. For instance, if a reporter receives the same piece of information from two sources under varying conditions of confidentiality, the “deeper,” more confidential source can feel betrayed if the information gets published. Because of this impediment, some reporters did not want to hear what sources had to tell them off-the-record if they could not pursue the issue further. Both LCA and LP reporters talked about this problem. A senior LP reporter told me about one of his colleagues:

It goes so far that [name] responds when a politician wants to give him information, which is not on the market yet—“but you can’t pass this on”— by saying: “then don’t tell me about it because I will find out otherwise and unbound. If you are telling me this under the condition that I can’t write about it, then I don’t want to know it.” (Interview, LP reporter, November 22, 2011)

As mentioned above, some reporters as well as spokespeople in Albany perceived the use of unnamed sources as detrimental for political discourse, especially when it transpired as anonymous attack quotes. Nevertheless, it was a rule of the game that they could not escape, fueled by the competition in the press corps, which was described to me as “fierce” and “intense,” as opposed to “sporting” in the LP. In order to outdo or at least match contenders’ stories, many LCA reporters indulged in the excess of unnamed sourcing.

Another danger of backstage talk is that sociability turns into ingratiating confidentiality: “It’s an easy trap to fall into to talk to somebody off the record, [like:] ‘oh, we’re just chatting here’” (Interview, LCA reporter, February 28, 2012). In this disguise, what one LP reporter referred to as “pseudo-confidentiality” becomes a form of manipulation that consists of politicians creating a sense of “we’re all buddies and we’re all sitting in the same boat” (Interview, LP reporter, April 17, 2012). One former LCA reporter said she would not be comfortable with the level of informality with sources that is common for some of her younger colleagues: “It’s so informal. They talk to these aides like they are in their own living room. ... I’m old-school, I guess” (Interview, LCA reporter, May 12, 2011).

The danger of feeling “in the know” is that opposing interests of participants dissolve in conversations among insiders, further sealing off the bubble many reporters felt they were working in. Being privy to political insider conversations may leave marks on journalistic news judgment, prioritization and interpretation removed from public interest. Several reporters in Albany talked about how Governor Andrew Cuomo used confidentiality for his advantage. One of them described Cuomo’s boundary blurring strategies when he had still been Attorney General:

I had never seen such active leaking through law enforcement in my life. It was very political, very dirty. ... [He had] long off-the-record discussions [with us]. That was just a try to relentlessly-politely but relentlessly-push your thinking in a certain direction. Or shape your interpretation of facts. And it’s become such a familiar game that it’s actually not as effective as he probably thinks it is. But it’s valuable. He’s a very smart guy, even when he’s being manipulative you learn something from him. (Interview, LCA reporter, January 21, 2011)

Cuomo’s medium-of-choice for these conversations was the phone, which was discussed in a New York Times article that had appeared shortly before he came into office as Governor (Confessore 2010). Instead of making himself available to the press in public, the article stated that he had regular and long (off-the-record) conversations with a small circle of reporters, which undoubtedly included the Times. His “art” was that these phone calls created “a powerful sense of intimacy, flattering and compelling amid the jockeying egos and endemic self-puffery of New York politics” (ibid.). Cuomo was described as easygoing in these conversations, picking up on personal details before suddenly cutting to the chase without revealing his concrete agenda.

This metadiscursive article is a rare case in which backstage talk is debated publicly. Besides the obvious reason for this void, namely confidentiality itself, it runs counter to professionalism. Though all correspondents engaged in confidential conversations on some level, keeping them backstage was an effort not to compromise front stage performances. As Goffman noted, “backstage familiarity is suppressed lest the interplay of poses collapse and all the participants find themselves on the same team, as it were, with no one left to play to” (1956: 107).

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