On Oct. 29, Chatterbox argued that Journeys With George, an HBO documentary to be aired next week, implicated NBC News in the violation of a source agreement. To recap: Alexandra Pelosi acquired the footage by taking home movies on the Bush 2000 campaign plane, where she worked as a producer for NBC News. Bush mugged willingly for Pelosi’s digital camcorder, allowing Pelosi to argue that this constituted tacit agreement that he was on the record. (She actually withheld a scene that showed Bush comically throwing himself at her feet because she didn’t think Bush could see that the camera was going.) But it isn’t clear that Bush understood that the results would be seen by the public. Mark Halperin of ABC News had made a similar documentary on the Clinton press plane in 1992 but never showed it to the public.
After the White House learned that Pelosi, who by now had left NBC, was releasing the film, Time quoted an unnamed White House official saying, “She promised then Governor Bush and looked him in the eye and said it was for personal use. It is disappointing that she gave her word and didn’t keep it.” White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett said much the same thing, a tad more diplomatically, to the Washington Post:“The overall impression by all those involved in the campaign was that it was for her personal use. It’s an obvious difference of opinion about the agreement she had.” The White House dropped its hostile stance once it figured out that the film was basically harmless and, moreover, that complaining about it would only make it a hotter ticket. Still, it seemed to Chatterbox that Pelosi had put NBC in the position of violating a promise to keep Bush’s filmed plane antics off the record.
Pelosi disagrees. Here is her letter:
I really wish you called me to comment on your item about my movie, Journeys With George. The allegation that my video “would stay out of the public eye” simply is not true. I made no promises to the Bush campaign. I encourage you to check with Karen Hughes or Karl Rove on this subject. They will confirm that I had no agreement with them not to air this material in public. In the movie, Bush was an active participant. He named it, after all, and even said it was going to be a “lousy documentary.” Throughout the entire campaign, I told Bush, Karen, Karl, and all the reporters on the plane who would listen, that I was making a movie. In fact, when the other network producers complained about my camera, Karen Hughes told them it was OK. I told Karen I was leaving NBC to make this movie and she wished me luck.
Chatterbox has placed calls to Hughes and Rove and will add an update below when he hears back from them. Chatterbox spoke to one of the network producers who (for competitive reasons) had complained to Hughes about Pelosi’s camera. This person said that Hughes brushed off the complaint but never explained what Pelosi’s deal with the Bushies was.
Chatterbox phoned Pelosi for clarification. She explained that for a long time the Bush campaign “never actually declared that the plane was off the record,” so there was no confidentiality pledge to break. Eventually the Bushies decided that the default assumption would be that the plane was on the record, and once they did, Bush mostly stopped showing up in the press section. Glen Johnson, who covered the Bush campaign for the Associated Press, backs Pelosi up and says that to argue Pelosi used off-the-record material is to “defy reality.”
But if the Bush campaign had not made clear to Pelosi whether the campaign plane was on the record, why did Pelosi tell Katie Couric, in an interview last March for Today, “Well, the plane was basically after-hours off-the-record”? Because, Pelosi told Chatterbox, what she meant was that it was off-the-record for the duration of the campaign. But how could the Bushies have conveyed that if they “never actually declared that the plane was off the record”? Pelosi can’t have it both ways, saying on the one hand that there were no rules and on the other that there were carefully delineated rules. Chatterbox is usually inclined to resolve disputes like this one in favor of the reporter, on the grounds that journalists (or documentarians) shouldn’t dream up imaginative reasons to withhold information from the public. In this case, though, it’s the journalist’s self-justification that seems imaginative.