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Sunday Late Night: Newsweek’s Unscrupulous Eleanor Clift

Eleanor Clift speaking at the 2008 National Book Festival. (photo: bluedvls11 via Flickr)

Eleanor Clift’s pledge to keep statements off-the-record apparently ends if you’re a Member of Congress lying in an Arizona hospital fighting for your life. Under those circumstances, Newsweek’s pet liberal columnist and Versailles courtier justifies disclosing what you’ve said about your colleagues, your district and your constituents. This is the worst kind of Villager self-aggrandizement: Gabby Giffords spoke at an off-the-record event just one week ago, and I — Eleanor Clift — will now tell you what she said.

I’m no fan of off-the-record events like Renaissance Weekend, when elites meet to greet, eat and leak. The entire premise, that policymakers and industry titans and movers-and-shakers say what they really think in front of Very Serious journalists who promise not to quote them, is toxic to the adversarial press relationships our Founders envisioned for America. But it also seems to me that if you attend, as a journalist, and agree to the ground rules, you can’t suddenly exempt yourself from them — especially when the subject of your commentary is unable to respond because she’s in trauma ICU recovering from an assassination attempt.

Here’s how Eleanor Clift gets close to her subject, the Congresswoman from Arizona, right from the start:

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords is fighting for her life after being shot in the head at an event in Tucson Saturday. The news is stunning—all the more so because I was talking with her just a week ago, at Renaissance Weekend in Charleston, S.C., the annual gathering of self-improvers where Giffords and her astronaut husband, Capt. Mark Kelly, have long been regulars.

Clift would have us think that the stunning nature of this news has something to do with her: that she spoke with Gabby Giffords one week ago. While that may make the news stunning to Clift, it hardly ratchets up the horror of the tragedy for any of her readers.

But it enables Clift to give herself this permission to talk about Renaissance Weekend in South Carolina:

They are off the record, but given Giffords’s grave condition, I think it’s worthwhile to recount some of what she said in the two panels I shared with her.

Got that? Because Congresswoman Giffords is in “grave condition” Eleanor Clift will now violate her confidence in the off-the-record nature of the entire event. And in some pretty nasty ways, too, as it turns out, while Giffords and her staff and family are understandably unable and uninterested in responding.

Clift describes what Gabby Giffords is supposed to have said about her colleagues who move their families to Washington:

She is back home every weekend, she said. “Nobody moves families to Washington anymore unless they’re in an impossibly safe district.”

Clift breaks her off-the-record pledge to characterize Gabby Giffords’ views of some GOP colleagues and a former Democratic colleague:

Giffords lamented how lawmakers with high profiles get attention today, pointing to Michele Bachmann, Alan Grayson, and Joe “You Lie” Wilson, who earned their place in the spotlight through “outlandish and mean behavior … You get no reward for being the normal, reasonable person.”

Clift then makes some odd connection between a quote she attributes to Giffords — “It’s held against you if you cross party lines” — to the Congresswoman’s vote for Democrat John Lewis for Speaker last week. In reality, Congresswoman Giffords had reasons for her vote, which had nothing to do with crossing party lines, since the Speakership was assured for John Boehner:

“I wanted to cast my vote in favor of someone who I respect and someone who I have tremendous regard for,” said the Arizona Democrat, who this fall survived a tough re-election fight for a third term. “It’s a time right now where we’re a very polarized country, and John Lewis rises above political partisanship. And that’s why I voted for him.”

Is it fair or right for Eleanor Clift to use her Newsweek platform to inject Gabby Giffords into today’s tragically reinvigorated debate over the heated rhetoric of America’s political discourse? Had Clift interviewed the Congresswoman on the record, with these quotes the result, sure.

But to take the opportunity of serving on an off-the-record panel with a Congresswoman at an off-the-record event and inject her off-the-record remarks into a conversation when she’s in surgery and fighting for her life? That’s a hideous new corollary to Tim Russert’s warped definition of off-the-record in the Village: everything’s agreed off-the-record, until an assassin’s bullet puts a politican under the surgeon’s knife. Then, her condition justifies Clift’s breaking her promise.

Especially since the nature of the event would preclude anyone in attendance from discussing these quotations without also violating the off-the-record nature of the event. No dialogue with the subject is permissible even if it were possible right now. And no debate over what was said, or meant, or in what context can be had with any other attendee, for that matter. Clift takes a self-defined solo spotlight to aggrandize herself into a national tragedy as if she has some special insight — insight she shared with readers by violating a primary tenet of her profession.

If off-the-record is to mean anything, anywhere, ever again, no public figure should trust Eleanor Clift again, ever.

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