Some time ago, I was exchanging e-mails with a professor who was on leave to work at a government agency. He was complaining about his poor treatment at the hands of agency management — who failed to appreciate the value of his research. The professor was careful to note in every email, however, that he was speaking “off the record.” I found this amusing because (1) I’m not a reporter and (2) it shows just how deep the post-Watergate culture of anonymous sourcing and media secrecy extends.
With this preface, I would note this post from Erik Wemple, editor of the Washington City Paper — or should I say, “a source familiar with Erik Wemple’s thinking”:
On April 28 at 11 a.m., the Cato Institute will be hosting a public gathering titled “Restoring the Pro-Trade Consensus.” It looks like a panel discussion among several experts, with the headliner being Tim Reif, general counsel for the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.
The discussion will center on the fate of the “bipartisan, pro-trade consensus that served U.S. interests so well for nearly six decades” and which “collapsed during the Bush administration.”
Of course, that’s not the interesting part. The interesting part lies right in the roster (emphasis all mine): “Featuring Tim Reif, General Counsel, Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (remarks off the record); Anne Kim, Economic Program Director, Third Way; and Dan Ikenson, Associate Director, Center for Trade Policy Studies, Cato Institute.”
Let me get this straight: You’re convening a fully public event, listing the thing on your Web site, getting the announcement in the listings of local papers, recruiting a huge audience of thinkers and hangers-on, yet you’re trying to declare an off-the-record rule?
Hey Cato, do you need government speakers so badly that you’ll violate all norms of logic and transparency just to nail one down? Think about how ludicrous this is: There’s going to be a panel discussion, and there’s no question that Reif and the other panelists will engage in an exchange of ideas. But anyone wishing to chronicle the exchange will be obligated to, like, delete Reif’s contributions because he’s off the record?
I couldn’t believe this until I visited Cato’s website and confirmed the “off the record” invite for Reif. Honestly, I haven’t stopped laughing long enough to come up with an appropriate response to this.