Open Mic

February 2011

Of Hacks and Flacks and a Death in the Family

Chuck Ross Posted February 24, 2011 at 7:18 AM

Working at The Hollywood Reporter years ago--as a beat reporter covering cable and home video--most of us at the time referred to ourselves as hacks. I was just happy to get into print as many stories as I could squeeze into the paper each day and occasionally beat my competitors at Variety.

The routine was non-stop and I couldn’t imagine a job that was more fun. Being single back then, I considered going out virtually every night to some function--a dinner or a screening or an awards show or just a party--one of the perks of the job.

You’d wake up early the next day for a breakfast appointment with an executive or a publicist , check into work for a few hours, back out for lunch with another executive and his or her publicist, back to The Reporter to write up stories, sticking around to about 7 p.m, and then back out to dinner and whatever event was planned for that night.

Since we were the hacks, of course we referred to the publicists, with no offense intended, as flacks.

I’ve long maintained that publicists have incredibly tough jobs and are often caught between the proverbial rock and hard-place.

The best reporters don’t settle for platitudes and ridiculous explanations. They are always looking for stories that really happened and some accompanying insight into those stories.

But often the publicist is not in a position to provide either those stories or the accompanying insight. Most executives think that the job of their publicists, first and foremost, is to paint their companies in a good light with information that they control as to when and where the information will be released to the public.

The best reporters, however, realize that their primary responsibility is to give honest stories to their readers, regardless of what kind of light these stories shine on the companies they cover.

As I left The Hollywood Reporter and as my career progressed, I realized that the best way to find out about the inner workings of the companies I was covering, to find real news, was to develop great relationships with top executives themselves, unfiltered through the newsspeak I would get from too many publicists.

It would be fair to say that most publicists didn’t like this methodology of mine, for they would be getting pressure from those to whom they reported to make sure the message that was being written about was the message they wanted to get out. Furthermore, they wanted to control when it got out and which publications got it first.

So I either didn’t have relationships with many publicists, or the ones I did have were poor ones.
However, there were exceptions. The publicists that I did have good relationships with I always thought were the smartest ones. Not because they seemed to like me--OK, that’s a lie; of course that was a factor.

Look, it’s like any relationship. A trust thing develops. If I would find out some information and the publicist wouldn’t try to stonewall me or engage in some sort of doubletalk about information that I knew was true, I was pleased. If I wrote about what I had learned in a truthful and fair manner, then the publicist knew I was trustworthy as well. And in the long run, I think they better served the companies for which they worked, as they were being honest about their companies.

And the public appreciates honesty. For example, Apple is beloved by most of us. And it’s not because we don’t know about some of its warts. But we appreciate Apple warts and all.

One of the publicists I liked a lot was Nancy Carr. Nancy was never a close friend, and what she really thought about me I have no idea. As I said, most publicists never liked me.

But I always appreciated the fact Nancy was a straight shooter. For many years she was at CBS. Most recently she was at the Hallmark Channels.

Like most publicists, Nancy knew which executives at the companies she worked for were jerks and in what ways they were jerks. It’s not that she talked about them in any disparaging way, but since I usually knew who the jerks were, and she knew that I knew, she never tried to pretend they weren’t.

She never approached me with non-stories that would waste my time, and never tried to mislead me about something I knew was true. She was frank and honest.

In other words, she was a facilitator, not an inhibitor.

And that included her personal life as well, at least the one part I knew about.

We shared a love of animals, especially those in danger of being killed if they weren’t adopted. My family has three dogs, all of them from rescue shelters.

But Nancy did much better than that. She actively sought out people to adopt these kinds of animals. And she was very successful at it.

Nancy started suffering from brain tumors. Like her colleague Pam Slay at Hallmark, I never heard her complain about her condition, not once.

As the end of last year approached, I had heard that Nancy was doing much better.

I was shocked last Friday when we learned that Nancy had died of a perforated colon. She was only 50 years old.

We’ll never know what Nancy and her family endured.

As James Agee said in his beautiful, poetic novel “A Death in the Family,” sometimes “God doesn’t believe in the easy way.”

So I’m angry and pissed off that Nancy’s dead, and f-you Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and your five stages of grief.

But I do find solace from the wonderful writer William Saroyan and what he wrote about life:

"In the time of your life, live--so that in that good time there shall be no ugliness or death for yourself or for any life your life touches. Seek goodness everywhere, and when it is found, bring it out of its hiding place and let it be free and unashamed….

“In the time of your life, live--so that in that wondrous time you shall not add to the misery and sorrow of the world, but shall smile to the infinite delight and mystery of it."

Nancy, thanks for smiling.#

NancyCarr.jpg

Costume Designers, Bringing TV Characters to Life. And Winning Awards for Doing So

Hillary Atkin Posted February 24, 2011 at 3:57 AM

The “Boardwalk” continues to sweep up awards left and right this season--the latest being a coveted Costume Designers Guild Award for outstanding period/fantasy television series. Designers John Dunn and Lisa Padovani picked up their trophy during gala ceremonies Tuesday night, Feb. 22, 2011, at the Beverly Hilton.

In the 1920s-era freshman HBO series “Boardwalk Empire,” set in and around Atlantic City's boardwalk, they dress everyone from gangsters and their molls to rum runners, law enforcement officers and suffragettes. The beautifully tailored and often brightly colored men's suits and overcoats worn by characters based on real people including Nucky Thompson and gangster Arnold Rothstein have drawn the attention of major men's fashion magazines. The women's clothing is even further spotlighted in a shop on the boardwalk run by a French woman who imports the latest fashions from Paris, often shown off on Nucky’s girlfriend, or his former consort.

HBO’s acclaimed “Temple Grandin” took the award in the outstanding TV movie or miniseries category for designer Cindy Evans.

In the category for outstanding design in contemporary television series, it was a tough race among "Dancing With the Stars," "Glee," "Modern Family" and "Treme.”

A “Glee-ful” cheer went up as costume designer Lou Eyrich took home the prize, as he she did last year, at the 13th annual edition of the guild’s event, hosted by actress Kristin Davis, who wore a flowing full-length white gown with large black polka dots for the occasion. The awards honor the best costume design in television, film and commercials.

If there was a night to show up in fashionable attire, this was certainly it, and other presenters, including Samuel L. Jackson, Kellan Lutz, Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher, Robert Duvall and Diane Lane, didn’t disappoint. Billy Bob Thornton joked he’d left all his Helmut Lang shirts at the cleaners, but most in the well-dressed crowd would agree he looked pretty dapper on stage, even if his tie was admittedly a little off center.

The costume designers for "Black Swan," "The King’s Speech" and "Alice in Wonderland” took home the awards for costume design excellence in the three motion picture categories for period, fantasy and contemporary film.

Isaiah Mustafa, better known as the Old Spice guy, fittingly presented the award for best design in a commercial. It went to Aude Bronson Howard for the spot “Chanel, Bleu de Chanel.”

Director Joel Schumacher, who began his career as a costume designer, was presented the Distinguished Collaborator award by Bill Maher. Schumacher reflected on his early days pulling pieces at Western Costume, the famous costume house that was lauded throughout the evening.

The late Michael Dennison, known for his work on the television biopic “Georgia O’Keeffe” and films including “World Trade Center” and “W.,” was honored with the Hall of Fame Award.

The Disaranno Career Achievement in Film and Television award went to Julie Weiss, a woman with a larger than life personality who has dressed everyone from Brad Pitt in “Twelve Monkeys,” for which she received an Oscar nomination, to Diane Lane in last year’s “Secretariat.” Lane was among the high-wattage group that included Moore and Kutcher, Duvall and Thornton--all of whom she’s dressed--on stage to honor Weiss’s illustrious career.

Halle Berry--in a stunning Elie Saab partially see-through red gown of chiffon and lace--was honored with the Lacoste Spotlight Award. The crowd was treated to a montage of her costumes throughout 20 years on screen, including her roles as Storm, Catwoman, the Bond girl in the hot orange bikini and some of her early films, such as “Jungle Fever.” In one role, she sported a gold tooth, suggested, she said, by the costume designer.

In a rousing speech, Berry closed by saying, “Stylists are not costume designers. Not to belittle them, but there’s a huge difference. A stylist helped me pick this dress, but she’s not a designer. Costume designers help bring characters to life.”

Still Mad as Hell: Why the Movie 'Network' Still Resonates Today--And What It Says About Charlie Sheen

Chuck Ross Posted February 16, 2011 at 8:27 AM

It’s been 35 years since Howard Beale, in one of the most famous scenes in the history of movies, instructed us to shout out of our windows, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

Yet it was only a few weeks ago that Keith Olbermann, in his exit speech on his last show on MSNBC, referenced that scene. Most of us would be hard-pressed to remember any lines from a movie we saw this past weekend, let alone having one still resonate 35 years later.

The Howard Beale scene is from the 1976 movie “Network,” and with its debut on Blu-ray this week I took another look at it. The movie was both a critical and a popular hit upon its release.

One of the first things that strikes you about the movie is the opening credits. The main stars are listed, then the title of the movie and then the credit “By Paddy Chayefsky.” Very few writers have had the clout to receive a movie credit so high up in the credits. But it’s what Chayefsky demanded--and deserved.

Chayefsky, one of the most famous writers from the early days of TV, when the medium was mostly live, won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay three times: For the 1955 movie version of “Marty” (adapting his own Emmy-winning TV production for the big screen), for the 1971 movie “The Hospital,” and for “Network.”

“Network” tells the story of Howard Beale (Peter Finch), the primary news anchor at the fictional TV network UBS, which competes with ABC, CBS and NBC. (Fox did not exist at the time.) Near the top of the movie Beale, who has been told that he’s been fired because of low ratings and will be leaving the network soon, announces, on-air, that in the next week he will commit suicide during his nightly national newscast.

From there the movie continues as a thrilling, rollicking, funny-as-all-get-out, spot-on satire of the business of TV, from the conflicts between news and entertainment, and those who work in each, to who owns the networks, to the mantra of “ratings, ratings, ratings,” and where that can lead.

When the movie was first released, many in Hollywood TV circles were not pleased. Wrote Time magazine: “In Los Angeles, network executives watching a screening of the movie were on the edge of their seats, almost clawing at the armrests with indignation. In New York City, the film was a three-martini lunch topic along Sixth Avenue--'Network Row'--and NBC angrily barred ['Network'] director Sidney Lumet from a screening of one of its own TV movies. 'It's a piece of crap,' huffed an NBC vice president. 'It had nothing to do with our business.' ABC's Barbara Walters was more delicate. She said that while the movie was entertaining, she was afraid audiences would think the movie was not satire but the truth.”

Chayefsky--who died of cancer at age 58 five years after “Network” was released--maintained that while yes, the film was a satire, one of the points is that it was also indeed the truth.

A wonderful extra included in the Blu-ray release is a rare TV appearance by Chayefsky on Dinah Shore’s daytime talk show on March 2, 1977, promoting “Network.”

Shore asked him, “Most of the people who maintain that ‘Network’ is a brutal attack on television are only looking at the tip of the iceberg, aren’t they really?”

Chayefsky replied, “It’s not a brutal attack at all. It’s a satire about television. It’s a very funny picture. ... It’s not a brutal attack--it’s murderous, but not brutal.”

He continued by insisting that what’s in “Network” is “true. If anybody tells you it’s not true, it’s true. Every bit of it is true. That’s what [some inside the TV business] say--they say it isn’t true--it is true.”

Then Chayefsky made the point that ratings are money, and that the TV business is a multimillion-dollar business. “Right now it’s an industry dedicated to one thing. Profit. And the only responsibility [the networks] have is to their stockholders. And that, I think, is worth knowing. That what you see on television is getting money for the network.”

He added, “If you follow the desire to make profit, which is the desire to get a better rating than the network opposite you--to get a bigger share, which means you then charge a hell of a lot more for your commercial moments, I tell you we will pursue this right into Colosseum ’77. We will throw the Christians to the lions every Saturday night, believe me.

“This is what the picture, essentially, was about. When do we say hold it, human life is a hell of a lot more important than your lousy dollar?”

To Time magazine Chayefsky expanded on his point: “Television coarsens all the complexities of human relationships, brutalizes them, makes them insensitive. The point about violence is not so much that it breeds violence--though that is probably true--but that it totally desensitizes viciousness, brutality, murder, death so that we no longer actively feel the pains of the victim or suffer for the mourners or feel their grief.

“When the [dirigible] Hindenburg blew up, the reporter [witnessing it live] broke down on the radio [as he described it]. I can't imagine anything like that happening today. I imagine a detached, calm description of the ship going up in flames: ‘I do believe there will be no survivors.’ We have become desensitized to things that are usually part of the human condition. This is the basic problem of television. We've lost our sense of shock, our sense of humanity.”

Talking about some of the events Chayefsky created in “Network,” TV producer George Schlatter, in another article, told Time magazine when the film came out, "People say there will never be such a show business approach to the news. But think back to the Symbionese Liberation Army shootout in Los Angeles, where there was live camera coverage and a carnival atmosphere as a group of people were burning to death. Try to separate show business from broadcast journalism in that instance."

The Time article continues, “In a macabre underlining of Schlatter's words, TV newsmen were already begging Utah prison officials last week to be allowed to film the execution of convicted killer Gary Gilmore. If prison authorities refuse, said a Salt Lake City TV man, seemingly desperate for blood, ‘We are considering using paragliders, long lenses, helicopters--maybe even a dirigible.’ ”

Though we have yet to televise executions of any type with regularity on TV, reality TV has become a staple.

But what I find even more interesting in Chayefsky’s concept of “anything for ratings” is some of the other recent scenarios we’ve seen.

For example the entire Conan/Leno debacle at NBC was born of this. It all came about because NBC decided it had to keep both Conan AND Leno--that’s the reason it promised Conan “The Tonight Show” in the first place: the fear of the damage Conan could have done to NBC’s ratings if he had left at that time back in 2004 or so and competed against them.

Or take what’s going on with Charlie Sheen and “Two and a Half Men.” Because of the fact information travels virtually instantaneously today, we learn the minute details of Sheen’s off-air destructive and self-destructive behavior seemingly the minute after he engages in these behaviors. Clearly it’s not a healthy situation for Sheen, and often, for those around him.

And is there anyone among us who would be truly surprised if the next tweet we receive is that Sheen has overdosed or for some other reason due to his excesses, has died? Or that someone close to him or part of his entourage at the time has died?

Yet he’s the highest-paid actor on TV, on a popular sitcom whose ratings seem to have no limits, so who at CBS or Warner Bros. would have the guts to say "no more."

What’s that again, Paddy? You say this is the basic problem of television? That we’ve lost our sense of shock, our humanity?

Watch “Network” again--or for the first time--and see if you don’t find some tears welling up behind your laughter.

Because, as Paddy said, the movie was, is, and will forever be about “when do we say hold it, human life is a hell of a lot more important than your lousy dollar?”#

Forget Fox News and CNN. To Really Get a Global Perspective We Need Our Cable Operators to Carry Al Jazeera English

Aaron Barnhart Posted February 11, 2011 at 4:53 AM

[Note—This first appeared in print on Thursday, Feb. 10, 2011, so when Aaron refers to “today” or “tonight,” that’s the date to which he is referring.]

Since the protests broke out in Egypt, there has been one constant: the relentless, thorough and unbiased reporting of Qatar-based Al Jazeera Arabic and Al Jazeera English.

And in this country, there's been another constant: growing restlessness with cheapskate cable operators who see fit to add scores of trashy entertainment channels to the dial and not one source for 24-hour global news told from an international perspective.

Today is Al Jazeera Meetup Day across the U.S., so if it's been bugging you that you can get this TV channel on your smartphone, your laptop, your Roku box--basically every place but your TV set--then now is the time to meet with other fans and demand the Al Jazeera English.

One meetup is happening in the Kansas City area, at 7 p.m. tonight at Crepes on the Square in Liberty. Timothy Gaull, who confirms a handful of attendees will be there, said he'll be having "a conversation about the narrow focus of mainstream media and of course a group of folks are pulling for Al Jazeera English to be granted broadcast licenses and rights here in our own market."

The target of these meetups are the major cable operators: Time Warner, Comcast and so on. These are companies that consider their public service complete by funding C-SPAN. That was a great idea in 1979, back when there were 10 cable channels. Now there are hundreds and it's time for the industry to step up by hosting one or two (for you BBC fans) global news channels that will go places and invest in bureaus and journalists that American news channels long ago gave up on.

DirecTV and Dish get a pass, for now, because they air LINK TV, which airs global news including Al Jazeera English's newscasts.

Al Jazeera English reaches 200 million people in the English-speaking world, and the original Al Jazeera reaches a billion or so Arabic viewers. It’s the world’s most recognized global media brand and widely respected everywhere, it seems, but the United States.

Viewer by viewer, that’s starting to change. And though tonight’s meetup numbers seem minuscule, compared with the reception my original piece on Al Jazeera English received in 2007, this feels like a groundswell.

Now that the Middle East is apparently on the front burner of our news agenda for the indefinite future, it’s time American cable operators stepped up and gave the public a truly global journalistic perspective.

[Here's Aaron's related piece that he wrote earlier this week]

Ever since it launched in 2006, Al Jazeera English has been the best cable channel I can't get on cable.

Broadcasting 24 hours a day from 65 bureaus around the world, AJE puts every American-owned TV news organization to shame. Its live coverage of the fighting in Gaza in 2009 drove many people to watch it on the Web, but it was still viewed as a novelty by many Americans until the events in Egypt.

AJE's reporting on the unrest in Egypt was the envy of broadcasters the world over, who relied heavily on video feeds from the Doha-based channel. And, needless to say, it was a thorn in the side of the henchmen who run Egypt and who couldn't yank Al Jazeera Arabic off Egyptian TV fast enough. NBC jetted Brian Williams in to anchor the "Nightly News" from Cairo, but that couldn't make up for years of investment in reporting on Egypt (as Williams would be the first to tell you).

Since Jan. 27 AJE has beefed up its video streaming capacity to handle the huge spikes in traffic, a spokesperson told me earlier today. More than 7 million U.S. viewers have spent nearly 50 million minutes watching the AJE website since Jan. 27.

Very few people, though, find watching live news coverage on the Web or their mobile more satisfying than watching it on plain old television.

Brian Stelter of The New York Times thought to ask the top 10 cable and satellite services if they were planning to add AJE, and they gave him pretty much the same answer they'd have given him if he'd asked them about carrying BBC World or CBC Newsworld or the Documentary Channel: "Do we own that channel? No? Then forget it."

Or words to that effect.#

My suggested links to read more about this:

Click to find out about the Demand Al Jazeera in the U.S. campaign

Click here to read about  Egypt cracking down on Al Jazeera

Who 'Mad Men' Creator Matt Weiner Thought Would Win the WGA Best Drama Series Award; Full Coverage of the WGA Award Ceremony

Hillary Atkin Posted February 7, 2011 at 7:11 AM

“Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner was thrilled at the conclusion of the 2011 Writers Guild of America Awards Saturday night. Not only did the AMC show win best television drama series--for the third year in a row--but one of its writers, Erin Levy, took home the trophy for best episodic drama.

It apparently runs in the family. In her acceptance speech, Levy said that as a child, she had admired her father’s WGA trophy, which he won for writing “Seinfeld.” Her parents were among those grinning ear to ear in the packed Renaissance Hollywood Hotel Grand Ballroom at Hollywood and Highland.

"I really didn't think we would win," Weiner admitted after the show, referring to the fact that HBO's freshman "Boardwalk Empire” has become this season’s awards darling, taking home the top episodic drama prize at the Golden Globes and best ensemble at the SAG Awards.

“Boardwalk” continued its winning streak by nabbing the WGA trophy for new series against “The Walking Dead,’ “Treme,” “Men of a Certain Age” and “Justified.”

The Los Angeles ceremony--a concurrent one was held by WGA, East at New York’s AXA Equitable Center--felt fun and fizzy, due in no small part to its hosts, Eric Stonestreet and Jesse Tyler Ferguson, who play a couple on "Modern Family." They got the party started by performing a spoof song with the refrain "write it gay," and climaxing with “such cachet, an award from the WGA.”

And when it came time to name the best comedy series, they were right there to congratulate the writers of “Modern Family,” who took home the statuette for the second year running. (The competition: “30 Rock,” “Glee,” “The Office” and “Nurse Jackie.”) The show’s writers took turns apologizing to real-life people they’ve mined for comedic material, culminating with Steve Levitan’s lament, “I apologize to my children for not locking the bedroom door.”

“Rock” didn’t leave empty-handed. Robert Carlock won the prize for episodic comedy for an installment entitled “When It Rains, It Pours.”

In the long form original category, only two contenders duked it out, both on HBO, with “The Special Relationship” besting “You Don’t Know Jack.”

Long form adaptation nominees were, no surprise, also dominated by HBO shows, with two episodes of “The Pacific” and the teleplay of “Temple Grandin” competing against “The Pillars of the Earth,” which aired on Starz. Robert Schenkkan and Michelle Ashford won for part eight of “The Pacific” and dedicated it to the gunnery sergeant at the heart of the story who had won every top military honor for his service.

Stonestreet and Ferguson were no match for the current Ricky Gervais style of awards show hosting, but they tried--skewering Scott Buck of “Dexter” for doing Oxycontin in the men’s and ladies rooms, and giving screeners to his housekeeper. Nominee Gary Greenberg got a taste of the roasting for what the hosts called his “crystal meth factory”--presumably at the Jimmy Kimmel show--and for stealing Altoids from Matt Weiner’s gift bag.

Presenter Martin Short continued the illegal drug comedy motif as he and Catherine O’Hara gave out the hotly contested best comedy/variety series trophy to “The Colbert Report.” (And we can’t wait to hear Stephen’s take on it.) “There’s no bigger high than appearing on an untelevised award show,” Short said. “The only difference between you people and pharmaceutical-grade morphine is morphine doesn’t judge.”

Decades later, the “Murphy Brown”/Dan Quayle controversy over unmarried women having children came to life again as Candice Bergen presented the show’s creator, Diane English, with the Paddy Chayefsky Laurel Award, given to a television writer who has made outstanding contributions to the profession.

English used her comedic skills to great effect in her acceptance speech. “Hell yeah, I deserve it, “ she said, while bemoaning the fact that writers use most of their health care plan on mental health and that designers don’t make cocktail dresses with sleeves.

Amy Pascal presented Steven Zaillian with the Laurel Award for Screen, honoring lifetime achievement in writing motion pictures. His include the acclaimed “Schindler’s List,” for which he won as Oscar for his adaptation, “American Gangster,” “Awakenings” and “The Falcon and the Snowman.”

Other honorary awards went to Tonino Guerra, Susannah Grant and Seth Freeman.

“Inception” got the WGA’s top honor for original screenplay for its writer (and director) Christopher Nolan. He used his speech to reflect on how his “Memento” was ineligible for a guild award nine years ago--and how there were some notable scripts left off the table this year. He didn’t name names, but they include “The King’s Speech” and “Another Year,” both of which are Oscar nominees for original screenplay. “I hope next year the person who stands up here can give thanks without qualification,” he said, while offering his gratitude for the award.

On the adapted side, Aaron Sorkin won the prize for “The Social Network,” and it wasn’t the time for modesty. “I wrote a good screenplay,” he said, “but David Fincher made a great movie.”

A note for the history books: The WGA gave out its first-ever new media awards, for original and derivative writing. In that spirit, all attendees were given a webcam--a parting gift that could somehow assist the process of writing, or at least provide a welcome diversion.

To See a Complete List of Writers Guild of America Award Winners, Please Click Here. 

Recently, Fortune Ran a Story About Steve Jobs Being Treated for Cancer in 2009. Jobs Did Not Release This Particular Info. Fortune Said It Was Told This Info 'Off-the-Record.' The Source Then Died and Fortune Used the Info. Huh? Wasn't That Unethical?

Chuck Ross Posted February 3, 2011 at 8:04 AM

Last month, when it became known that Apple CEO Steve Jobs was going to be taking another leave of absence, Time Warner's Fortune magazine ran a story with information that heretofore had not been public: that Jobs had been treated for cancer in Switzerland in 2009.

Now, it's not a secret that Jobs has had cancer. But this particular information had not been made public by Jobs or anyone else. The article in Fortune said the author of the article had been told this information off-the-record by a source. The source had subsequently died, so the information was no longer off-the-record, the article said.

As a working journalist for about 30 years, here’s my take on this. Let’s say I’m going to write a story about the mayor of your town, and I interview you. During the course of our interview you say, “Off-the-record, I know for a fact that my sister-in-law is having an affair with the mayor,” and then you tell me why you know this is a fact.

Since I only know this information because you’ve told it to me off-the-record, I cannot use this information in the article I’m writing about the mayor.

Then, let’s say you drop dead six months later. I CANNOT then write another article saying that the mayor had been sleeping with your sister-in-law, and I know this because you told me this information off-the-record but now that you’re dead I can use the information.

Now, I COULD use that information if we had worked out an agreement wherein you had told me, “Listen, you can’t tell from looking at me, but I’m very sick and I’ll probably die soon, and after I die you can use that information about my sister-in-law and the mayor.”

However, in all my years as a journalist, I’ve never had that latter conversation with someone after they’ve told me something off-the-record. A conversation like that just wouldn’t come up.

So here’s what Doron Levin, a contributor to Fortune and the author of the article in question, wrote about Steve Jobs in Fortune that appeared online on Jan. 18, 2011:

“It wasn't until June 20th, two months after the fact, that the Wall Street Journal uncovered the fact that Jobs had undergone a secret liver transplant at Methodist University Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. However, during that absence, Fortune can report, Jobs also took an unpublicized flight to Switzerland to undergo an unusual radiological treatment at the University of Basel for neuroendocrine cancer, according to Jerry York, the Apple (AAPL) director who died in March 2010.

“Yesterday, Apple announced the third known absence by Jobs for medical reasons over the last 7 years. York told me about the treatment, which was not available in the U.S., in the context of our discussions about Jobs, his health and Apple's future. Under our agreement at the time, York wanted the facts of Jobs's treatment in Switzerland to remain out of the news. He didn't say whether the board knew of it. (With York's death, the off-the-record agreement is no longer in place.)"

Let me repeat that last line: "With York's death, the off-the-record agreement is no longer in place."

I was appalled as I read this, and fired off an email to Fortune Managing Editor Andrew Serwer. Part of what I wrote in the email was “my understanding of 'off-the-record' is different than Levin's. I would consider the record forever off-the-record unless a source told me otherwise. If the source dies, the off-the-record comments would remain so.

"I want to write about this incident in my blog and I would appreciate any thoughts you could contribute as to why any off-the-record comments become on-the-record the moment the person who gave you the off-the-record comments dies."

Serwer emailed back that he was traveling but that someone from Fortune would get back to me. 

Someone did, in an emailed statement sent to me from Fortune’s director of public relations. The Fortune statement read, “Doron and York had an agreement; the agreement is private but Doron is operating under the guidelines of what they had discussed. Fortune does not believe that the death of a source gives journalists the blanket right to publish previously off-the-record comments and that's not the case here."

However, what exactly the case was here--the "private" agreement between Doron and York--Fortune wasn't willing to say.

Next I did a little research, and found out that York, 71, had collapsed at his home due to a “massive cerebral hemorrhage” and had died the next day. I also read that he was a heavy smoker, but I could not find any article saying that he had cancer or knew that he was going to die.

I find it very odd that Doron Levin would have made some sort of agreement with York wherein York said something like “I'm going to die soon and you can use the information on Jobs, that I gave you off-the-record, when I die.”

I assume Fortune asked Levin exactly what his agreement was with York before it printed the story, but, as I said, Fortune wasn’t sharing with me or any of its other readers the content of that agreement. 

So then I tracked down Levin and called him at work. I got his voice answering machine and left a message.

I then followed up and sent him an email at his work email address. I explained who I was, that I was going to write about this issue in my blog, and then I wrote, “I was hoping you could explain why Mr. York’s off-the-record conversation with you became no longer valid when he died.”

Levin emailed me back thanking me for my inquiry and then wrote, simply, “My agreement with Mr. York was confidential.”

I find that simply bizarre. Levin wrote the information York gave him in Fortune magazine for all the world to see. Levin freely admitted in that piece that York told him the information “off-the-record.” And then the only explanation Levin gave for making public the off-the-record information is that “With York’s death, the off-the-record agreement is no longer in place.”

Furthermore, the publication that published the piece, Fortune, also would not explain this, other than to say, basically, trust us, this is OK.

In light of the darkness here, the almost total lack of transparency about the York/Levin agreement that would tell readers why this is OK, it’s not OK. It’s unethical. You can’t use information that someone gave you off-the-record.

While this may seem clear, as it happens there is actually NOT clarity about what off-the-record means, either among journalists or among the public.

Here are a few examples that I’ve personally experienced.

One time I received a call from a top TV executive who was mad as hell that we had published an article with remarks that he claimed he had told our reporter were off-the-record. As the editor, I called the reporter into my office and asked him if this could possibly be true.

Here was the reporter’s response: “Of course I used it. Yes, it said it was off-the-record, but he didn’t say it was not-for-attribution.”

Upon further interrogation it turned out this reporter, who had been reporting for about a decade, was confused by these terms, and was actually shocked when I explained to him that if someone tells you information off-the-record you can’t publish the information, and that the meaning of not-for-attribution is that you can use the information, but you can’t name the person who gave it to you.

Here’s another example, this time from the perspective of the person being interviewed. One of my reporters went to a lunch where it was agreed he would interview someone and tape it. I tagged along.

As the reporter put the tape recorder on the table he told the person he was going to interview, “Let’s keep this very simple. We’ll tape this and I’ll be free to publish anything you tell me, unless you tell me that it’s off-the record.”

The interview was going fine, and every so often the person who was being interviewed--who was an ad sales executive for a cable network--would say that something was off-the-record.

At one point the executive started talking about some of his advertisers, by name, and complaining about them. Since he didn’t say any of this particular information was off-the-record, it appeared in the article.

It was about five minutes after publication that I received a call from him, and he was very angry that his trash talk about his clients appeared in print.

I replied that the rules of the interview had been clear, and that he had said certain information was off-the-record but he had never said that the negative remarks he had made about the advertisers were off-the-record.

He answered that he had known the reporter for years, and that the reporter should have known him well enough that he didn’t want the negative remarks used, despite the fact that he’d never said they were off-the-record.

So even though the rules for the interview had been explained and understood, the interviewee was still surprised because he thought his relationship with the reporter trumped those rules. Caveat Emptor needs to be invoked whenever you are interviewed by a reporter, no matter how well you think you know him or her. Make sure you know the rules about what you say that can and cannot be used for publication.

The confusion about off-the-record seems to be widespread. In searching this topic on the Internet, I came across a 1999 article by Timothy Noah on Slate’s Chatterbox column. The article is titled “For the Record, What “Off-the-Record” Means”

Noah interviewed, separately, five journalists at The Washington Post on the meaning of various terms in journalism, including off-the-record. He wanted honest answers, so he chose not to identify the Post reporters by name. Here’s what the five reporters had to say about off-the-record:

Postie No. 1: "Most of the time, when people say off the record, they don't really mean it ... I have no idea what 'off-the-record' means."

Postie No. 2: "When people try to tell me something is off-the-record, it means you can't use this ... I just try not to have off-the-record conversations."

Postie No. 3: "It means that you can't use it unless you are able to report it." The source is "giving you a tip that you can go report as kind of a blind tip." But, in this person's view, the reporter may not tell other sources that he's been told this information, even if he refuses to provide clues as to the tipster's identity."

Postie No. 4: "Means you can't quote me. No, I don't remember ... You can't attribute, but you can use it? No, I take that back. If someone says 'off-the-record,' you can't use it at all."

Postie No. 5: "Nowadays, off the record means--usually it comes in the middle of the interview, and somebody says, 'Can we go off-the-record?' and you say yes or no." According to this person, if the reporter says yes, then the rules are the same as in "not-for-attribution."

Noah goes on to tell a story about the Post’s legendary reporter Bob Woodward. According to the story, one of Woodward’s sources--Jane Sherburne--was upset when she saw something she had told Woodward off-the-record in print. Woodward claimed he got the off-the-record information confirmed from other sources. Wrote Noah, “it seems that Sherburne and Woodward didn't have the same understanding of what 'off-the-record' meant. In this instance, Sherburne seemed to think it meant 'don't use at all,' while Woodward seemed to think it meant 'use if you can get from another source.' "

Personally, whenever I’ve reported, I’ve been fortunate that I’ve never had a problem with off-the-record. One reason for that is probably because I’ve always bent over backwards to be crystal clear with those I interview what my understanding is of common journalistic terms and tools such as off-the-record, not-for-attribution and background, and making sure that I’m on the same wavelength as those I interview. I've even called sources back to make sure they were OK about what they said that would be in print.

I know other reporters who have told me they'd never do that, for fear that something juicy the source had inadvertantly said would be taken back.

My philosophy about that is that I've always felt my readers would be much better served if I had a great continuing relationship with a source rather than trying to burn my source because I knew that he or she had let something slip that they had not meant to make public. And over the years I don't think any reporter I directly competed against got more "scoops" than I did. 

Furthermore, I’ve never had any “secret” or “private” agreements such as the one Levin and Fortune claim Levin had with York.

In other words, I’d never write a sentence like the one Levin did that “With York’s death the off-the-record agreement is no longer in place.”

A line I COULD see myself writing would be: “With York’s death the off-the-record agreement is no longer in place because York had told me that if he died I could use the information.” Or whatever the deal had been.

Clearly there’s already enough confusion about the terms we journalists use to gather information without the added obfuscation used by Levin and Fortune in the way they handled the disclosure of Jobs’ personal medical history.#