Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Right to Remain Silent

Maybe I should carry Miranda cards to hand out to political candidates from now on.

Carly Fiorina sure could use one. She knows all too well now not to fiddle with her Blackberry and make disparaging remarks about her Republican ticketmate's campaign, or repeat one about her opponent's hair, while getting primped for a live TV shot before an open mike (not to mention a rolling video camera).

Jerry Brown could use one. He's got notoriously loose lips, but this time they got him in trouble (okay, I did), when he brought up Nazi propaganda master Joseph Goebbels during a conversation with me about Meg Whitman's campaign, at a park in the Oakland hills (see "Run Jerry Run" post below if you somehow missed this brouhaha).

And I suppose I could use one, too. I thought long and hard before blogging about that conversation with Brown, and there was considerable deliberation and discussion about it within our newsroom, and with outside experts, before I finally hit "publish post," 11 days after Brown made the now-infamous Goebbels comment to me. I don't regret writing it, but I do know that it has hammered home that I have no desire, ever, to become famous. I don't enjoy receiving nasty emails, or seeing people misquote my blog, or mangle basic facts. It is surreal to look up at the airport TV and see one's name crawl by in the CNN closed captioning. I have no idea how so many news organizations and conservative radio hosts got my cell phone number. I have been on the wrong end of the news a few times before, and I never like it. I'm in the business of reporting the news, and bringing interesting stories to people, not becoming part of the news myself, and I am never comfortable in that position.

For the record, I would like to clarify a few points for people. I don't imagine this posting will be read by nearly as many as the last one, but for those who are still interested (and all of my regular, devoted readers - thank you for all the supportive comments!), here are the answers to some of your questions:
  • Yes, the conversation with Jerry Brown was on the record. Every conversation a politician or public figure has with the media is on the record, as long as the reporter identifies himself as such (which I did), and unless the newsmaker specifically asks before the conversation for it to be off the record, and the reporter agrees (Brown did not ask for it to be off the record).
  • This conversation did not take place last Sunday, as Brown's spokesman has said, and as others have reported. It took place on Saturday, May 29, over Memorial Day weekend. I did not give the exact day or date in my original blog, so it's my fault that the timing of the remark wasn't clear. I only wrote "the other day," and I mentioned that it was before the June 8 primary.
  • This was not a private, intimate conversation between just the two of us. As I mentioned in the blog, other joggers came in and out of the scene. At least one of them, a former neighbor of mine, overheard the entire discussion. At one point, Brown was holding forth before a group of five people. He's a public figure, running for public office, speaking publicly in a public place, which certainly makes his comments fair game for reporting.
  • No, I did not record the conversation, since I was on my bike and had no recording equipment with me. I did, however, realize the potential import of what Brown had said. I rode home immediately, going over his words in my mind, and wrote them down as soon as I got home. I have a damn good memory. I use it on the radio every day. More importantly, Brown has confirmed that the conversation took place, and admits making the comments. He only regrets them, and believes they were taken out of context.
  • They were not taken out of context. I'm not sure there's any context that would have made them acceptable to Meg Whitman. She probably would have publicized them even if I had provided ample historical and political context, and explained the entire history of Joseph Goebbels and his "Big Lie" propaganda technique.
  • I never wrote that Brown called Meg Whitman a Nazi, or compared her or her campaign to Nazis. I simply reported his words, in which he likens her advertising approach to the propaganda techniques used by Goebbels. I leave it to others to draw their own conclusions. I am not responsible for the headline-writing or media shorthand of other organizations. You never heard "Brown Calls Whitman A Nazi" on KCBS, because we never said it that way, and that's not how we operate.
  • My blog is quite different from what, and how, I report on the radio. It's sort of an Op-Ed column. It's written in a much more casual, impressionistic way. Sometimes it contains analysis, sometimes even my opinion. It is not an advocacy column; I don't ever take sides or make endorsements. Sometimes it just contains musings or items that don't really fit into what we do on the radio. Other times, it's designed to give our listeners some insight into what goes on behind the scenes, or add some color and detail that didn't fit into the tight time constraints of the KCBS news hour.
  • I have had many, many private or casual conversations with public figures and have never blogged about one before. I have never breached an "off the record" agreement, and I never would. In fact, Jerry Brown himself has said some rather interesting things to me over the years which I haven't bothered reporting, because I didn't consider them blog- or news- worthy. This one, I did - not because of the potentially incendiary nature of the Goebbels reference, but because I believed the blog would give my readers a sense of the Democratic gubernatorial nominee's state of mind. I would have written it even if he hadn't brought up Goebbels. In fact, it wasn't until the Whitman campaign read the blog and e-blasted that section to the world that anyone even noticed or commented on the Goebbels reference at all. I had dozens of reactions to the blog before that, all positive, without a single mention of Goebbels or Nazis.
  • No, I do not have a political ax to grind. I like Jerry Brown. I am not trying to destroy his campaign. I am not a tool of the right. My affection or disdain for political candidates does not affect what I report about them.
There are many lessons to be learned here. One is, you can never predict what will go viral on the Internet. Another is, if you're running for public office in the 21st century - watch every word you say, and where you say it. Just as the rest of us should assume that any email or text we send could end up being viewed by just about anyone, politicians should always assume that anything they say could be recorded or reported. Even a private conversation with a trusted advisor could end up in someone's tell-all book a year later, or used against you sooner than that when that advisor switches campaigns. Jerry Brown isn't the first to learn this the hard way; he's just lucky no one happened to whip out an iPhone or Flip camera and video our exchange, so the world could see him say those words, the way I reported them.

I don't usually use this blog as therapy, or to get things off my chest, but given the extraordinary nature of this situation, I really wanted to make a few things clear. Thank you for your indulgence.

Oh, and by the way, for the few who faulted me for not explaining every single historical reference in that blog - the "Miranda card" mentioned in this one's opening line refers to the warning card the police carry, so they can read you your rights, one of which is to remain silent. It's named for Ernesto Miranda. You can Google it.

13 comments:

Craig in Texas said...

Boy I wish we had this interesting a gubernatorial race to follow here in Texas. We also have the well-financed Republican candidate (in this case two governor wanna-bes from the right who won't go away even if we beg and plea nicely) against an aging, balding, former big city mayor on the left except our Democrat is about as anti-moonbeam as you can find. I guess Brown is just a more colorful hue of the rainbow than White?

Californians can be semi-thankful your governors can make news talking about their opponents; ours have to threaten secession to stir up our voters.

Interesting story and thanks for the blog coverage, Doug. So is your Miranda reference the pre-2010 Supreme Court ruling or the Roberts Court's Miranda interpretation?

Pete said...

Doug, I think it's totally cool that you blogged about your conversation with Jerry. No problem there. My qualm is with the amount of material you quoted. Let me ask you this: What do quote marks mean to you? Because to me, they mean what comes between them is verbatim what was spoken. You might have a damn good memory, but unless you can say—and how you could, I can't imagine—that you captured all those hundreds of words you quote Brown saying verbatim, you can't quote them. You can write about the incident. You can characterize what he said. You can quote particular phrases that you are 100 percent certain he said. But you can't quote several paragraphs. You just can't. Not as a journalist.

Also: You write, "More importantly, Brown has confirmed that the conversation took place, and admits making the comments." Brown didn't record the conversation, either, so his ability to dispute the particulars of your story is limited. In addition, Brown's interest here isn't in judging whether you conformed to acceptable journalistic practice; his interest is in this story going away as soon as possible. To that end, his best strategy is to apologize and move on. That Brown hasn't disputed the accuracy of your quotes hardly verifies that you got the words exactly right.

Doug Sovern said...

Fair enough, Pete. I will concede that it is certainly possible that I remembered a word or two here or there incorrectly. But what's between the quotes is how I remember it, verbatim. You might be surprised to know that many of the quotes you read in the paper every day are NOT 100% verbatim, accurate to the word. As a radio reporter who records events at which print reporters often just take notes (although more and more of them use digital voice recorders now), I am always amazed at the wide disparity between the way the "quotes" are given in the paper and what I have actually recorded the person saying.

I may well have been off by a word or two here or there, but I can promise you the gist, the meaning and 99.9% of the words are accurate. I actually left out some other interesting things he said, over the objections of some colleagues, because I either wasn't sure I had the wording right, or I thought them less compelling.

And yes, you're right, Brown's ability to dispute my accuracy is even less than my ability to report what he said, because for him, I'm sure this was a forgettable conversation that he didn't give a second thought until the Whitman campaign seized on my blog. But if I had been way off, I guarantee you, he would have denied or disputed them. I know I would, if someone misquoted me.

William said...

Too bad that your thoughtfulness didn't make it clear that Brown didn't call Whitman a Nazi, or provide the context of Goebbel's being most famous for the "Big Lie" theory of propaganda, or tell us when this encounter took place, how you had such specific quotes when you neither recorded it nor took notes, or how this went unremarked upon (no surprise, since there's generally no activity on this blog) until the Meg Whitman campaign blasted it out ...

Oh, and nice try on the Miranda bit. Miranda is a staple of decades of movies and TV shows.

Is Goebbels' Big Lie technique?

Nope.

It's just a staple of Meg-abucks political campaigns, like the one that used your blog to distract Brown right after the primary. I'm sure you were shocked ...

Pete said...

Thanks for your reply, Doug. Your willingness to engage is admirable and gives me additional confidence that you rendered those quotes accurately. Even better to hear is that you left out stuff you didn't feel you could quite capture with great accuracy -- that tells me you indeed do respect the sanctity of quotes.

I think what set me off here is the trend in journalism toward quoting that which the journalist cannot be absolutely certain of. This happens a lot in the big fat best-selling books by the (admittedly great) journalists like Bob Woodward and Michael Lewis. They present whole conversations that they did not hear, nor for which there are any recordings, all based on the recollection of a source or sources. I think they are generally getting things right, but should they really be QUOTING people in such instances? I just think in this age in which reports become so quickly and widely disseminated and live forever, we have to be more careful than ever to be sure we are getting it right. Forever now people will be finding your quotes of Jerry Brown and treating them as though they are a perfect reflection of what he said. Not just a damn close one, but a perfect one. I'm glad you worked as hard as you clearly did to get them right.

(And as an aside, I worked as a journalist, at the Press-Enterprise in Riverside and the Examiner back in the early '90s, and you are absolutely right that quotes are mangled by newspaper people all the time! It's a reason I wrote stories with fewer and shorter quotes than my editors were often comfortable with.)

Pete said...

BTW, I just noticed you began your career as a copy boy at the NY Times. Me too, sort of. I worked in the Times sports department in 1985-86, after graduating from UC Berkeley....

Doug Sovern said...

I'm really tired of responding to William, since there doesn't seem to be much point and I've already answered most of his jabs, so this is the last time I will:

Brown didn't bring up the Big Lie technique - it would have been inaccurate to suggest that he did, and it's not my place to guess what was in his head.

But "Meg-abucks"? Ooh, that's good. Is that original? First time I've heard it. I want to use it - in fact, I want everyone to. Can I steal that?

Doug Sovern said...

Thanks Pete, and I feel the same way about those books. "Game Change" is the latest one. Second and third-hand conversations, unrecorded, unsourced - put in quotes? Always strikes me as weird.

Was LeAnn still the sports editor when you were there?

Pete said...

Doug, Joe Vecchione (sp?) was the sports editor, though Arthur Pincus and Bill Brink were the guys I worked with the most.

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