Did NBC News Burn a Source?

The ethical problem with HBO’s Journeys With George.

On Nov. 5, HBO will air Journeys With George, Alexandra Pelosi’s documentary about life on George W. Bush’s press plane during the 2000 campaign. The documentary has stirred a little controversy because some in the White House say that Pelosi had promised that the footage, which she took on her own digital camcorder while traveling with the Bush campaign for NBC News, would stay out of the public eye. (The film includes some mildly compromising scenes of Bush mugging for the camera in various ways; to view some clips, click here and here.) Pelosi has answered that Bush is a big enough boy to know that whenever somebody points a camera at a politician, he’s on the record. In truth, though, that isn’t always the case. ABC News producer Mark Halperin made a campaign home movie in 1992 called Elvis and Us, which showed Clinton clowning around in similar fashion. Unlike Pelosi, Halperin never showed his film to the public.

Pelosi left NBC News after her campaign coverage, whereas Halperin stayed on at ABC News after his and eventually became political director. That would have left Halperin with more to lose professionally—access to the White House—had he cashed in the way Pelosi later did. For both of them, though, the moral issue was whether to break a promise. In Pelosi’s case, doesn’t that broken promise implicate NBC News?

NBC News Vice President Bill Wheatley isn’t buying it. “My memory,” he told Chatterbox, “was that there were inquiries made, and the White House was not insisting that it never be used.” By that time, though, the White House had no recourse; the documentary had been made, and Pelosi didn’t need NBC News’ permission to screen it. Any fuss would only have given the documentary more publicity. Here’s how Pelosi put it in an Oct. 22 interview with the BBC:

[The Bush White House] initially said I didn’t have permission to show it in public. But once they started saying that, they realized that it was nothing but good publicity for me. All these articles were being written about The Movie the White House Doesn’t Want You to See. They didn’t want that because everyone would want to see it. They’ve changed their tune now and say they like the movie.

The Bushies are wise to like Pelosi’s film. It’s fairly innocuous and all too convincing in conveying the tedium of life in the presidential-campaign bubble. Bush comes off as a likable goofball, which is better than the way he often comes off in his public presidential appearances. The film’s true target is the reporters on the campaign plane, who are depicted as being too dependent on and cozy with the candidate and his staff.

Seen in one light, Pelosi’s and NBC’s breach of an off-the-record agreement is a victimless crime; not even NBC was harmed, because Pelosi gave advanced snippets last March to Dateline and the Today show. Looked at another way, though, the very triviality of Journeys With George makes the breach a graver offense. It’s not as though Pelosi and NBC News burned a source in order to bring urgent information to the public’s attention.