Commentary: Philly journalists, keep chats with pols on the record

By David Boardman

Even if you don't pay much attention to politics, you likely know that Pennsylvania has a torrid U.S. Senate race. Whether you're tuned into Designated Survivor, The Daily Show, or da Iggles, you can't avoid the volley of attack commercials between incumbent Republican Pat (Dangerous) Toomey and Democratic challenger Katie (Risky) McGinty.

Control of the Senate could hinge on the outcome, and the parties and their PAC supporters have made this the most expensive congressional race in the nation, at $89 million and counting.

So, with less than a month to Election Day, you might think that journalists would be on high alert to look for and report anything that might help you make your voting choice. You might think that given a rare opportunity to corner one of the candidates alone at the local press club with a roomful of journalists, those journalists would be eager to ask probing questions - the kind of questions candidates don't normally get at prepackaged "Town Halls" - and to report the answers.

And you would certainly think that if the candidate made a notable gaffe, changed his position, or said something newsworthy, you would find it on Twitter instantaneously and explored in more depth on the 11 o'clock news and in the morning newspapers.

In almost any other city, you'd be right. But not in Philly.

For here, the nation's "oldest daily operating press club" - the 124-year-old Pen and Pencil, a charmingly grimy, dark den that exudes Ballantine Beer and Pall Mall cigarettes from its pores - routinely declares such meetings "off the record." That means that anything the candidate says at the club - a place where booze and political chatter flow freely - cannot be shared with the voting public.

That means that unless you were there, you have no idea what Toomey said on Oct. 5. Neither do I, a member of the P&P who didn't attend.

What's wrong with this picture? To Stu Bykofsky, the venerable Daily News columnist who normally pulls no punches on pols, not much. Questioned on whether the ground rules might allow candidates to get away with something, Bykofsky, a longtime P&P stalwart, says, "That's exactly the opposite of our aim . . . It's an attempt to sidestep the public spin and peer into their dark hearts."

But then what? Something to chatter about with fellow scribes over the newsroom water cooler?

For clarity, "off the record," to most journalists, means that a reporter cannot under any circumstances use a source's remarks for publication or broadcast. Occasionally, the arrangement can be a valuable early stage in a sequence that ultimately leads to publishing or broadcasting important, on-the-record news.

But the notion that a group of reporters would routinely grant this privilege to politicians up for election? At best, odd. At worst, an abdication of duty.

What if, for instance, Toomey - who still has not said whether he will support his party's presidential nominee - said something strongly supportive or strongly critical of Donald Trump? What if Toomey revealed a crack in his positions on abortion, or gun control, or fracking?

And in light of the events of the past week in the political world, what if Toomey said something outrageous about women or minorities or puppies or apple pie? Not to suggest that he would, but what if?

We wouldn't know.

"If the subject feels she can speak freely without a 'gotcha' quote popping up on Twitter, that's what we want . . ." said club President Brad Wilson. "Such an occasion can allow [reporters] to learn more about some of the folks they cover and perhaps understand their motivations and what drives them better."

Kelly McBride, a respected media ethicist who is vice president for academic programs for the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, isn't buying.

"It's hard to imagine any logical argument that would support a collective, off-the-record session with someone the public would like to hold accountable," McBride said. "I understand the need for one individual or one news organization to go off the record occasionally, but even this should be rare. It makes me very uneasy when a collective group of journalists from many organizations get together and go off the record."

I've been openly questioning the Pen and Pencil Club's policy since moving to Philly three years ago from Seattle, where I was the editor of the Seattle Times. In my three decades as a journalist, I had    resisted going off the record with sources, and had instructed reporters to do so only as a last resort - especially with elected officials.

The P&P's policy strikes me as a vestige from another era, where reporters and politicians routinely kept each other's secrets. It's one of those "the way we've always done things" artifacts of which Philly culture abounds - male "wenches" in the Mummers Parade, politicians and lobbyists (and, yes, university officials) absconding to New York to cavort together every Christmas season for something called the Pennsylvania Society.

Philly journalists, it's time to enter the 21st century. Next time a politician speaks at your club, take out those pens and pencils and smartphones proudly and let the rest of us in on the conversation.

David Boardman is dean of the School of Media and Communication, Temple University. He is a member of the Board of Managers of the Institute for Journalism in New Media, the nonprofit of which the Philadelphia Media Network is a subsidiary.  dboardman@temple.edu