Reporter/source dating, on-the-record/off-the-record and Filak’s First Rule of Holes: A look at “The Biden White House’s First Media Scandal”

If there’s one group of people I have complete and total sympathy for, it is single people who would like to find a meaningful relationship with another human being in today’s world.

Between the digital media pitfalls that exist around every corner (social media stalkers, potential dates finding the stupid tweets you put out seven years ago, the sharing of “personal photos” that get airdropped to the entire world) and the insane life schedules (work, family, health), I can’t think of anything more stressful than trying to connect with a new person in hopes of building a life right now.

And that’s not even counting the pandemic. Exactly how do you end a “socially distanced” date? (I can imagine the conversations with friends afterward: “So when he elbow-bumped you, was it like a REAL elbow-bump or was it like he just kind of felt awkward when you went in for the bump and just reciprocated?”)

(Side note: Amy and I have a mutually agreed upon pre-nup that says if one of us forces the other one back onto the dating market for any reason other than death, we give up our rights to any marital property. Plus, I would get to burn her knitting stash or she would get to set fire to my baseball cards, just to be mean. THAT’S how scary the dating pool seems to us…)

So, even though we’ve talked about the concept of source-reporter relationships here as something to avoid when possible, I get why it’s hard for two people like (now former) White House deputy press secretary T.J. Ducklo and political journalist Alexi McCammond to give up the connection due to work entanglements. She had been covering the Biden campaign and he had been promoting it, so once romance entered the picture, things had to change.

According to a profile on the pair in People magazine, they both decided to play by the ethical rules of the field:

“We both realized we both felt the same way,” Ducklo, who joined the Biden White House as a deputy press secretary, tells PEOPLE. “We’re both really happy, and we wanted to do it the right way.”

That meant telling their bosses. An Axios spokeswoman says McCammond, who joined the site in 2017, told her editors about the relationship in November “and asked to be taken off of the Biden beat.” She was reassigned to covering progressive lawmakers in Congress and progressives across the U.S. as well as Vice President Kamala Harris, the spokeswoman says.

“We stand behind her and her coverage,” the spokeswoman says of McCammond, describing her as “a valued member of the Axios team.”

For her part, McCammond says, “When my personal life had the potential to interfere with my work, I didn’t think twice about sharing my happiness in November with Axios that I’d found someone in TJ who shows up for me in a way I’d only hoped for.”

While the People profile was apparently fair game, Ducklo appeared to have a problem with Politico writing about the relationship, according to a Vanity Fair article:

The confrontation began on Inauguration Day, January 20, after (Politico reporter Tara) Palmeri, a coauthor of Politico’s Playbook, contacted McCammond for comment while one of her male colleagues left a message for Ducklo, according to the sources. Ducklo subsequently called a Playbook editor to object to the story, but was told to call the Playbook reporters with his concerns. But instead of calling the male reporter who initially contacted him, Ducklo tried to intimidate Palmeri by phone in an effort to kill the story. “I will destroy you,” Ducklo told her, according to the sources, adding that he would ruin her reputation if she published it.

The article goes on to say that Ducklo made derogatory and sexist comments in an “off-the-record” conversation with Palmeri, noting that she had been jealous of his relationship with McCammond. He also used language I’m not allowed to use here, but let’s just say Ducklo said he believed that McCammond was of a greater sexual interest to at least one other man than Palmeri was.

The White House, which initially complained that Palmeri broke the “off-the-record” agreement with Ducklo, announced last week that Ducklo has been suspended for one week for his comments and Ducklo has issued a formal apology to Palmeri and her media outlet.

Over the weekend, Ducklo resigned from his position and issued a formal apology for his actions.

This situation didn’t have to get to this point, so let’s go through a couple points that might help you if you land in a similar romantic entanglement:

DO THE RIGHT THING: The one thing that I can’t stress enough is that initially Ducklo and McCammond DID do the right thing when they became an item. They went to their bosses, talked it out and got everyone on the same page.

This isn’t an easy thing to do, and I can speak from experience. In two of my journalistic stops, I was romantically engaged with a person who was working on the opposite side of the fence: Once it was a city council rep when I was at the State Journal and once it was a police dispatcher when I was the crime editor in Missouri. In both cases, I came clean, but in the former, I didn’t really say anything until we were engaged. (Not exactly bright, but I also wasn’t DIRECTLY on that beat… And yes, that sound you hear is a hair splitting…) In the other case, she got the job after I already had mine, so it was a “ground-level” discussion and everything panned out fine.

As much as this is an awkward situation, it’s like removing a Band-Aid: Grab a corner and yank. You’ll be much better off.

 

CHIVALRY MIGHT BE DEAD, BUT STUPIDITY LIVES ON: The idea of defending a fair maiden from the evil trolls who might do her harm is a swoon-worthy concept in fairy tales. Calling up a reporter and threatening her for reporting on your relationship is dumber than garlic-flavored toothpaste.

Something tells me that McCammond can more than hold her own against pretty much anything anyone tosses at her. She’s a veteran reporter of MSNBC and Axios, so she’s used to political hatchet jobs (which assumes this Politico piece would be one, which isn’t fair to Politico at this point). She’s also probably dealt with a ton of sexism, racism and misogyny as a woman of color who works for national media outlets, so she’s not going to wilt like a magnolia in a rainstorm if someone starts saying mean things about her and her boyfriend in public.

The not-so-smooth moves started when Ducklo called Palmeri’s editor first, in a conversation that just screams, “Hey, bro, get that little lady to back up off me a bit, ‘kay?” When the editor did the right journalism thing, and told Ducklo to call the people working on the story, Ducklo swung and missed again. He didn’t return the call of the MALE co-author who was working on the story, but rather decided to go after the FEMALE co-author with his puffer-fish routine. I can’t imagine exactly why Ducklo thought this was a necessary move or a good idea, but it was clear that he wasn’t thinking a whole heck of a lot.

Having said all this, I have no difficulty imagining how Amy would react if she found out in a very public way that I called up her supervising nurse and told the woman to back off of my beloved or I’ll go all “Ivan Drago in ‘Rocky IV'” on your ass.

My imagination leads me to sleeping in the milk house for a week, protecting my sports stuff from a fire.

 

THERE ARE LIMITS TO OFF-THE-RECORD CONVERSATIONS: When I think of how on-the-record/off-the-record conversations work, journalists and sources tend think of  as being like a safety measure for both people involved.

I tend to see them this way:

 

In other words, the concept of off-the-record can protect some vital areas, but it’s a vest, not the Iron Man suit. If a source tells you, off-the-record, that they plan to murder a school bus full of children after this interview, you should strongly consider calling the cops. I don’t think there will be any serious journalists writing op-eds on your lack of ethical standards.

Journalists and sources should ALWAYS work out exactly what on-the-record and off-the-record mean before going off of the record. This is where you decide what can be used and how that source should be referred to, among other things. It’s for both of your benefits.

An experienced press aide like Ducklo should know that. He should also know that threatening a reporter’s career and reputation would clearly fall outside of the bounds of what she’d dutifully keep to herself, for fear of revealing a double-super-secret conversation she had a source. He crossed a line and that was going to become public and painful.

Which leads us nicely into the final point…

 

FILAK’S FIRST RULE OF HOLES: As we’ve explained numerous times on the blog, Filak’s First Rule of Holes is simple: “When you find yourself in one, stop digging.”

Ducklo and McCammond knew from the jump that this kind of relationship was going to garner attention, which is why they played by the rules and made the right moves immediately. They even participated in the media circus part of it, granting a heck of a lot of access to People for that profile.

(Say what you want about the quality of journalism in People or Politico or whatever, but if you want people to respect your privacy, the best way to do that is NOT to be featured in a publication with a circulation of nearly 100 million.)

Even if it wasn’t an “open secret” as Politico mentioned in its Playbook coverage, it was now out there and people were going to figure it out. The best thing to do was to realize you’re standing in a little hole, of your own making, and decide to let the chips fall where they may. This is the kind of story that goes away in a half a news cycle and involves, no personal offense to either of them,  relatively B-list folks in the entirety of the political machine.

Instead, every step Ducklo made came with the sound of a shovel hitting the dirt, digging deeper and deeper. It intensified the scrutiny on the relationship when he went after Palmeri. It extended the news cycle when the word got out about the threats and his assessment of her as a woman and a journalist. It forced the issue to become a talking point for everyone out there from journalistic groups of great importance to twerps like me who run a blog.

(It also basically wrote the headline for half the people out there. How do you not hear the headline in “I will destroy you” when you’re saying it? Also, what’s that rules about not picking fights with people who buy ink by the barrel?)

In the end, this, too, will pass, but if you want to make sure it passes more quickly if you end up in this spot, just remember that rule about holes.

 

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