Just last week I praised the Times Union of Albany, New York, for its reporting on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s history of sexual harassment and assault. Now the paper is having “a moment,” as a headline at the Columbia Journalism Review puts it, earning widespread plaudits for its principled — and colorful — refusal to accept off-the-record documents that were apparently aimed at smearing one of Cuomo’s accusers.
As Azi Paybarah reported in The New York Times, Times Union editor-in-chief Casey Seiler and managing editor Brendan Lyons were on a call last March with Cuomo’s then-top aide, Melissa DeRosa, when DeRosa told them she was going to send them documents about Lindsey Boylan, one of Cuomo’s alleged victims. It turned out that the governor’s office was secretly recording the conversation, and the transcript was included in last week’s report by state Attorney General Letitia James. (Secretly recording someone in New York State is legal.)
Seiler’s response: “Ugh, no, no! Not off the record. No, don’t send us anything unless it’s on the record, Melissa, OK?”
This is the way to do it. Although off-the-record conversations and documents can sometimes be helpful in establishing context, they are also incredibly dangerous, tying the hands of journalists and making them complicit.
As Jon Allsop notes at the CJR, the Times Union’s stand has nothing to do with the ongoing debate about objectivity; rather, it’s about independence:
There is, as Paybarah and others have suggested, something pleasingly old school about the Times Union’s approach to the Cuomo story. But at a moment of profound media-industry debate — that cuts, in caricature at least, down generational lines — as to the value of traditional journalistic norms and practices, it’s worth noting that what’s good about the paper’s journalism, as presented in the report, is not old-schoolness, in itself, but its strict critical distance from power, a value that many of the industry’s would-be reformers are trying to reassert, not muddy.
Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan praised the Times Union as well, writing that it “maintained proper journalistic distance from sources, even when there was a price to pay in terms of access. Refused off-the-record information. Served the public interest.”
Of course, it’s worth nothing that the Times, the Post and some of the other major news outlets that have lauded the Times Union over the past week regularly allow the powerful to go off the record even when they shouldn’t. So in addition to ladling on the hosannas, I hope they’ll also treat the example of the Times Union as a learning experience.