Candidate’s Comments Were On The Record
When you’re running for governor, whatever you say in public places or in front of cameras and microphones is on the record.
I mention what ought to be obvious because some supporters of Republican candidate Paul LePage are criticizing the Maine Public Broadcasting Network for releasing video of LePage as he awaited a taping of the public TV program “Maine Watch” on Sept. 28. Before the show began – but while the mics were live and the cameras rolling – host Jennifer Rooks told LePage that two public radio reporters wanted to speak to him after the program. When the candidate learned that one of them was MPBN’s State House bureau chief, A. J. Higgins, LePage grinned and said, “I’m about ready to punch A.J. Higgins.”
The negative press LePage received after the comment became public prompted Scott Fish, owner and editor of the conservative As Maine Goes Web site, to post a query asking whether the dissemination of the video marked an end to “Professional Courtesies.”
Fish said he had had many conversations with journalists prior to taping programs, and the contents of those discussions had never been made public.
“Does MPBN's posting of this off-air video mean such courtesies are gone?” Fish asked. “Does that mean anything said by and to MPBN reporters off-air is fair game for public posting?”
The answer is both simple and complicated.
It’s simple for gubernatorial candidates and other politicians. There never has been and never should be any such thing as “Professional Courtesies.” As noted above, anything they say within earshot of a reporter or within range of a camera or microphone is public and can be used as the news organization that collects it sees fit. If the pols don’t like that, they should watch their mouths. Or don’t run for office.
For most other people, the answer as to whether their off-the-cuff remarks ought to be used in news stories is less clear. It depends on who the speaker is and what he or she said.
My personal rule has always been to show people who are experienced with dealing with the media – or ought to be experienced – no mercy. For those without that background, my inclination has been to cut them some slack.
That doesn’t mean I excuse racist rants, threats of violence, or confessions of crimes. If somebody is dumb enough to say something like that in my presence, even if that person is unaware I’m a journalist, they deserve what they get.
But if an ordinary citizen – a witness to an event, a victim of a felony, or just somebody who feels like expressing an opinion – says something that I overhear and that could be embarrassing for them if it were spread through the media, I tend to err on the side of caution.
Unless there’s a demonstrable public benefit to putting that remark in print, on the air or online, I probably wouldn’t do it, even if it were on the record, and I had made a point of asking permission. That would be especially true if I thought the person who gave me the injudicious quote failed to understand the implications of broadcasting it widely.
To further muddy the ethical waters, I have used such quotes on occasion, when I thought they’d enhance a story, but I’ve kept the speaker anonymous. Some news organizations won’t allow this practice, and I can understand why. But I’ve also found that a certain level of flexibility can produce the best result for the interviewer, the interviewee, as well as the readers and viewers.
The bottom line is, there’s no hard, fast rule. Different circumstances demand seemingly contradictory choices. The only real requirement is that reporters and editors give the matter some serious thought before making a decision on what to use and what to let slide.
As for Scott Fish of As Maine Goes, I suspect the reason none of his pre-show comments ever got used had less to do with “Professional Courtesies” than with his remarks being less enlightening than he thought they were.
Al Diamon can be e-mailed at email@example.com.