Des Moines Register Calls Out Obama Over Off The Record Interview

Des Moines Register Editor Rick Green isn’t too pleased that the Obama campaign insisted that the paper’s interview with the President by off the record:

The Des Moines Register’s publisher and I spoke with President Barack Obama this morning — but we can’t tell you what he said.

Just four days before the Register’s presidential endorsement is released, Laura Hollingsworth and I received a phone call from the president. He was calling from Florida, on the heels of a morning campaign appearance and about 14 hours after his debate with GOP nominee Mitt Romney at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla.

The conference call lasted nearly 30 minutes and was an incredibly informative exchange of questions, answers and an insightful glimpse into the president’s vision for a second term. He made a genuine and passionate case for our endorsement and for reelection.

Just two weeks before Election Day, the discussion, I believe, would have been valuable to all voters, but especially those in Iowa and around the country who have yet to decide between the incumbent Democrat and his Republican opponent.

Unfortunately, what we discussed was off-the-record. It was a condition, we were told, set by the White House.

We learned Monday afternoon that the president would be available to us this morning. Like most newspapers around the country, the Register has lobbied for months to get both candidates to appear before our editorial board to analyze the important issues confronting Iowa, the rest of the country and the world.

Typically, these visits are an opportunity for us to ask questions, get details on platforms and positions and to contrast each opponent’s views. These exchanges are weighed when our five-member editorial board – which also relies heavily on independent and extensive research — meets and drafts our endorsement editorial.


It was a “personal call” to the Register’s publisher and editor, we were told. The specifics of the conversation could not be shared because it was off-the-record.

Of course, we immediately lobbied his campaign staff in Des Moines for a formal, on-the-record call. We were told it was not their decision; it came from the White House. We requested that the White House be asked to reverse course so whatever the president shared with us could be reviewed by voters and our readers.

No reason was given for the unusual condition of keeping it private.

We relented and took the call. How could we not? It’s the leader of the free world on line one

The Editorial Board was between a rock and a hard place. Interviewing the President is a tremendous “get” and it’s hard for any journalist to turn that down no matter what the conditions. However, it’s refreshing to see journalists calling out politicians for imposing ridiculous conditions like this on them.

Update: CBS News White House Correspondent Mark Knoller reports on Twitter that the Obama campaign has relented and will allow the Register to treat the interview as being on the record. You can find the transcript of the conference call here.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Tony W says:

    Teddy Roosevelt was famous for this tactic – and violating the rules lost the reporter access to the White House (and likely their job with the newspaper). It is another big advantage incumbents have always enjoyed, and part of the reason they are so hard to unseat.

  2. Tsar Nicholas says:

    That story reads like a conservative parody of Obama and the liberal media. There are so many layers of irony you’d need a flow chart to keep track of them.

    That aside, it’s not surprising the WH is focused not only upon on Iowa but upon the Fourth Estate in Iowa. It’s looking more and more as though Obama’s “firewall” will of absolute necessity have to include the retention of Iowa.

  3. gVOR08 says:

    A minor quibble, but why do we keep calling the President “leader of the free world”? In a Cold War era of NATO v/ the Warsaw Pact and Red China this usage was descriptive. What does it mean in 2012?

  4. Herb says:

    Note to self: Don’t call newspaper editors for a “chat.” Call the bankers, the industry titans, the Hollywood moguls.

    They know how to keep their mouths shut.

  5. MBunge says:

    I’m not sure why the President shouldn’t be able to have an off-the-record conversation with journalists.


  6. Anderson says:

    And was Romney’s interview on the record?

  7. Anderson says:

    It’s looking more and more as though Obama’s “firewall” will of absolute necessity have to include the retention of Iowa.

    Nope. Obama wins with Ohio or VA, assuming NV and WI stay blue, as seems most likely. (With VA he has to hold NH too.) Iowa gives breathing room but is not an “absolute necessity.”

  8. Nikki says:

    @Anderson: According to the article, yes.

  9. Ian says:

    You know what? In a vacuum, the editor is completely right.

    But we don’t live in a vacuum. We live in a world with Mitt Romney, Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Michelle Malkin, John Hindraker, Glenn Reynolds, Ed Morrissey, etc. We live in a world where a perfectly reasonable observation that the “Job Creators” (peace be upon them) didn’t build the roads, bridges, education system and internet that helped them succeed gets turned into a six week festival of intellectual dishonesty. We live in a world where simply mentioning that comparing the size of the navy to the height of WW1 is not a valid comparison gets turned into howls of, “We do so still use horses……..very occasionally!”.

    I guarantee you that by the end of the day, Memeorandum will be lit up like a Christmas tree over this interview, and there’s a 95% chance that the “controversy” that’s dug up will be utter, utter BS. So yes, Mr. Editor, you’re right that this sort of thing should be out in the open, and at the same time, Malkin, Reynolds, Morrissey, Hindraker and company will prove why it shouldn’t.

  10. Anderson says:

    Thanks, Nikki.

    It’s a good interview, btw.

  11. jukeboxgrad says:

    It’s looking more and more as though Obama’s “firewall” will of absolute necessity have to include the retention of Iowa.

    No. I think the best, simplest summary of the electoral college situation is this statement from Nate Silver:

    Obama could win the Electoral College by winning Ohio, Wisconsin, and either Iowa or Nevada.

    In all those four states, Mitt has never had a lead in the RCP average. And Obama only needs either IA or NV, not both of them. And Obama’s current lead in all those states is at least 1.7 (in the RCP average).

  12. Geek, Esq. says:

    That discussion is a more effective case for his re-election than I’ve seen in any “on the record” discussion.

  13. bookdragon says:

    @Geek, Esq.: It strikes me that this was a set-up.

    If the paper endorsed Obama, there would be a 2-second notice of headline and most folks wouldn’t bother beyond that.

    Now that there’s been a ‘controversy’ and Obama was ‘forced’ to concede, people might actually read it. Given that there’s darn little to twist (although God knows the Faux machine will try) and it’s a pretty good argument for re-election, that works for making sure Iowa stays in Obama’s column.

    Plus, some folks outside Iowa will read it too.

  14. Geek, Esq. says:

    This was like an put option on the transcript. If he said something damaging, it was off-the-record. If it turned out perfect, it gets released with bonus media coverage.

  15. Tillman says:

    @Geek, Esq.: I noticed that as well. The basic interpretation of the campaign’s reversal on whether the interview was on-the-record or off- is that they did so to avoid the bad press on being insular with journalists.

    The interpretation more people should be considering is that the Obama campaign reversed because the paper’s article on the whole thing notes how effective the interview would be in convincing people to re-elect him, and the minor buzz generated by a non-controversy (unless you’re a journalism freak, I suppose) would drive blogs and online news aggregates to give it more coverage in a “viral” way.

    It’s not twelve-dimensional chess so much as twelve-dimensional speed chess. Then again, I famously give people the benefit of the doubt.

  16. bill says:

    captain transparency again!