Whatever It Is, It’s Not Journalism
If you follow the news on a regular basis, you’ve probably become familiar with the different manner in which reporters often deal with, and identify, sources in the course of their reporting. There’s “on the record,” “background,” “deep background,” and a host of other methods that journalists use to gain in formation from sources, some of whom either don’t want to be named on the record or don’t want the information presented in ways that would make them easy to identify. There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of that, of course, and indeed Watergate itself would not have come to light were it not for an anonymous source who was much later identified as FBI official Mark Felt. Also, there’s nothing wrong with asking that reporters make sure that attributed quotes in their stories are accurate and to promptly correct and note any inaccuracies. Indeed, that’s why most print reporters carry around a recording device of some kind to avoid those kinds of errors. Today’s New York Times, though, reveals a completely new practice that seems to have sprung up in the course of this campaign where reporters are allowing politicians and campaign officials to require approval for the use of quotes that are completely accurate:
The quotations come back redacted, stripped of colorful metaphors, colloquial language and anything even mildly provocative.
They are sent by e-mail from the Obama headquarters in Chicago to reporters who have interviewed campaign officials under one major condition: the press office has veto power over what statements can be quoted and attributed by name.
Most reporters, desperate to pick the brains of the president’s top strategists, grudgingly agree. After the interviews, they review their notes, check their tape recorders and send in the juiciest sound bites for review.
The verdict from the campaign — an operation that prides itself on staying consistently on script — is often no, Barack Obama does not approve this message.
The push and pull over what is on the record is one of journalism’s perennial battles. But those negotiations typically took place case by case, free from the red pens of press minders. Now, with a millisecond Twitter news cycle and an unforgiving, gaffe-obsessed media culture, politicians and their advisers are routinely demanding that reporters allow them final editing power over any published quotations.
Quote approval is standard practice for the Obama campaign, used by many top strategists and almost all midlevel aides in Chicago and at the White House — almost anyone other than spokesmen who are paid to be quoted. (And sometimes it applies even to them.) It is also commonplace throughout Washington and on the campaign trail.
The Romney campaign insists that journalists interviewing any of Mitt Romney’s five sons agree to use only quotations that are approved by the press office. And Romney advisers almost always require that reporters ask them for the green light on anything from a conversation that they would like to include in an article.
From Capitol Hill to the Treasury Department, interviews granted only with quote approval have become the default position. Those officials who dare to speak out of school, but fearful of making the slightest off-message remark, shroud even the most innocuous and anodyne quotations in anonymity by insisting they be referred to as a “top Democrat” or a “Republican strategist.”
It is a double-edged sword for journalists, who are getting the on-the-record quotes they have long asked for, but losing much of the spontaneity and authenticity in their interviews.
Jim Messina, the Obama campaign manager, can be foul-mouthed. But readers would not know it because he deletes the curse words before approving his quotes. Brevity is not a strong suit of David Plouffe, a senior White House adviser. So he tightens up his sentences before giving them the O.K.
Stuart Stevens, the senior Romney strategist, is fond of disparaging political opponents by quoting authors like Walt Whitman and referring to historical figures like H. R. Haldeman, Richard Nixon’s chief of staff. But such clever lines later rarely make it past Mr. Stevens.
One can certainly understand the campaign’s motivations here. In an era where a gaffe can take over a news cycle as it spreads across the cable networks, Twitter, and the blogosphere, there’s a certain advantage to being able to control what actually gets printed. A printed quote may not have exactly the same resonance as a video clip that can be posted on You Tube and played endlessly on CNN/MSNBC/Fox, but in a world where information travels at the speed of light the wrong quote at the wrong time can be just as damaging. So, from the perspective of the campaign professionals insisting on “Quote Approval” in some or all circumstances makes a lot of sense.
It’s hard to see what’s in it for the reporters, though. Yes, they get the direct quotes that actually make their story something worth reading, but they also have to delay their reporting until the campaign okay’s a quote thus losing precious time in the news cycle. More importantly, though, this strikes me as a serious breach of journalistic integrity on their part, something the reporters seem to realize:
Many journalists spoke about the editing only if granted anonymity, an irony that did not escape them. No one said the editing altered the meaning of a quote. The changes were almost always small and seemingly unnecessary, they said.
Those who did speak on the record said the restrictions seem only to be growing. “It’s not something I’m particularly proud of because there’s a part of me that says, ‘Don’t do it, don’t agree to their terms,’ ” said Major Garrett, a correspondent for The National Journal. “There are times when this feels like I’m dealing with some of my editors. It’s like, ‘You just changed this because you could!’ ”
Not surprisingly, this article has generated much commentary in the blogosphere as well as from those who watch and write about journalism for a living and none of it is very complementary toward the reporters. Journalism Professor Chris Daly puts it this way:
[T]he journalists should never have agreed to it. These spokespeople, senior officials, and top aides get paid lots of money for their ability to think on their feet and choose their words carefully.
At the very least, having agreed to this arrangement, the journalists have a professional duty to reveal the terms. What about transparency? I, for one, could live without stories in which members of the political class get to “clean up” their quotes.
Another question: in what other fields does this practice apply? Sports reporting? Business news?
Off the top of my head, I would guess that a practice similar to this is likely very common in entertainment reporting, where the only way that reporters can often gain access to celebrities is by agreeing to very restrictive terms imposed by the celebrity and their “people.” In all honestly, though, it hardly matters to me if the story about Christian Bale includes quotes subject to “Quote Approval.” In all honesty, who really cares what an actor says? When it starts showing up in the political world, though, or in business reporting, then I think we’ve got a serious problem because the practice clearly chips a significant amount away from the independence of the press. It’s already the case that political reporters must sometimes agree to terms to get interviews, and are often subject to the politicians whims when it comes to availability. For example, I wrote last month about the problems the White House Press Corps faces due to the fact that President Obama has developed a habit of not making himself available for questioning on a regular basis. The fact that they are now agreeing to require what they write be subject to approval and editing by the people they are supposed to be reporting on is rather disturbing.
Joe Coscarelli and Kevin Drum both argue that reporters should start saying no to these requests for approval before publication. To the counter-argument that this would make it harder for them to do their jobs and less likely they’d be able to write about the issues in question, Drum correctly points out that most of the campaign stories in question rarely produce anything of interest anyway. He has a point there, but I’d also add that the reporters who have been so complacent in agreeing to this practice are forgetting that their relationship with the campaigns is a two-way street. Just like they need access to campaign insiders to do their reporting, the campaign needs access to them to get their message out. Does anyone seriously think that political campaigns are going to stop talking to reporters from The New York Times, The Washington Post,or National Journal just because they can’t pre-approve quotes? Considering the fact that they use all of these outlets, and more, to leak material on a regular basis, I doubt that they would. The journalists hold more cards here than they realize, and they shouldn’t be so quick to sacrifice their integrity just to maintain good relationships with campaign insiders. This is a business transaction on both sides of the pad and pencil, and the journalists need to realize that they have something the campaigns want just as much as they want something from the campaigns.
H/T: Deacon Greg Kendra, from whom I got the quote that became the title of this post.