Shortly before a White House briefing call for the press on President Trump’s impeachment trial on Saturday, deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley laid out the rules for participants in the media.
“The ground rules are as follows: Information on the call is on background and can be attributable to ‘sources on the president’s legal team.’ ‘Sources on the president’s legal team.’ And the call is also embargoed — the content on the call, rather — is embargoed until the conclusion of the call.”
Then he added: “As a reminder, you — by participating, you are agreeing to the ground rules. And with that, I’ll turn the call over to [sources on the president’s legal team].”
That’s how things work in Washington.
Reporters and the people they report on often — almost always — set out the terms of their interviews and phone calls beforehand. Big players like, say, a secretary of state, will insist on having some control over what’s for publication and what’s not. Usually, being able to move freely between on-the-record and off-the-record makes for a more open conversation.
That agreement is ironclad. Breaking the pact — for a reporter — means they’ve violated their word and their sources can no longer trust them. It’s the worst transgression a reporter can commit, and those who do it don’t stay in the business long. Word gets around quickly in D.C.
Which brings us to the bizarre tale of reporter Mary Louise Kelly, who works for the publicly funded National Public Radio.
Ms. Kelly sat down on Friday with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Before their interview, the reporter and her subject discussed the ground rules.
In a post-interview conversation, which garnered much press coverage, Ms. Kelly claimed, “I was taken to the secretary’s private living room where he was waiting and where he shouted at me for about the same amount of time as the interview itself. He was not happy to have been questioned about Ukraine. He asked, ‘Do you think Americans care about Ukraine?’ He used the F-word in that sentence and many others. He asked if I could find Ukraine on a map. I said yes, and he called out for aides to bring us a map of the world with no writing. I pointed to Ukraine. He put the map away. He said, ‘People will hear about this.’”
But that’s not what happened, at least according to Mr. Pompeo.
In his own statement the next day, Mr. Pompeo said Ms. Kelly repeatedly lied to him about the parameters for the interview, and, by the way, wrongly identified Ukraine, instead pointing to Bangladesh on the map in question.
“NPR reporter Mary Louise Kelly lied to me, twice,” Mr. Pompeo said. “First, last month, in setting up our interview and, then again yesterday, in agreeing to have our post-interview conversation off the record. It is shameful that this reporter chose to violate the basic rules of journalism and decency.
“This is another example of how unhinged the media has become in its quest to hurt President Trump and this Administration. It is no wonder that the American people distrust many in the media when they so consistently demonstrate their agenda and their absence of integrity,” he wrote.
It’s worth noting, he added, that “Bangladesh is NOT Ukraine.”
A transcript showed Ms. Kelly insisting on asking about Ukraine and former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, who was fired by Mr. Trump. In terms agreed to before the interview, the subject was to be solely Iran, Mr. Pompeo said.
“Change of subject. Ukraine. Do you owe Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch an apology?” Ms. Kelly said in the interview.
“You know, I agreed to come on your show today to talk about Iran. That’s what I intend to do,” Mr. Pompeo said.
The two then had a contentious exchange. Ms. Kelly claimed “people who work for you in your department” say Mr. Pompeo has not defended his staff.
“I don’t know who these unnamed sources are you’re referring to. I can tell you this. When I talked to my team here — ” Mr. Pompeo said.
“These are not unnamed sources,” Ms. Kelly interrupted.
It all went downhill from there.
Jason Rezaian, an opinion writer for The Washington Post and a CNN contributor, blasted Mr. Pompeo.
“The statement released this morning by @SecPompeo attacking @NPRKelly is a shameful assault on #PressFreedom. Americans deserve a Secretary of State, that is diplomatic, can answer foreign policy questions honestly, upholds our values and respects the press. This one doesn’t,” he tweeted.
But Andrew Surabian, a former special assistant to Trump turned political strategist, laid out a completely different view, and got it exactly right.
“In what universe is complaining about a reporter breaking an off the record agreement an ‘assault on press freedom?’ If @NPRKelly did indeed break an off the record agreement, she should be fired & her colleagues should be condemning her, not holding her up as a resistance hero,” he tweeted.
Today’s journalists don’t even know the No. 1 rule of journalism: Honor your oaths.
• Joseph Curl covered the White House and politics for a decade for The Washington Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @josephcurl.
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