Quote Approval? Oh No You Didn't

Anyone who cares already knows that the contents of the “official” Congressional Record are bullshit. Members can delete things they’ve said and add things they’ve never said.

Anyone who cares already knows that the contents of the “official” Congressional Record are bullshit. Members can delete things they’ve said and add things they’ve never said. Now, some major news media, including the New York Times, have put a foot on that slippery slope.

They have exchanged journalists’ independence for access to presidential candidates and advisers. The price of admission to many interviews is to allow campaign staffs to review and censor quotes before reporters write their stories.

To its credit, the Times let politics reporter Jeremy W. Peters blow the whistle. He began his expose this way: “The quotations come back redacted, stripped of colorful metaphors, colloquial language and anything even mildly provocative. They are sent by email 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.”

Thumbs-down means the reporter cannot use a newsworthy, timely and accurate quote that would serve the readers well. Should the reporter put readers first and use the quotes anyway, the price can be loss of access to candidates and top strategists.

Campaigns long have favored some reporters and denied access to others. Reasons abound, but the inference is that access remained contingent on not being negative or hostile. That’s why so many Democrats won’t go on Fox News or maybe Fox News doesn’t invite them. They are mutually hostile and it would be a brave adviser who suggests a perceived liberal might persuade anyone watching Fox News. The risks are too great; the benefits too elusive.
This isn’t national security or Inside the Beltway navel-gazing. It affects stories we read — or never are shown by those complicit news media — during this presidential campaign.

How pathetic is it? Here’s how the Times quoted Dean Baquet, Times’ managing editor for news, excusing this ethical debacle: “We don’t like the practice. We encourage our reporters to push back. Unfortunately this practice is becoming increasingly common, and maybe we have to push back harder.”

Maybe? Maybe the Times has to push back harder? That’s about as limp as it gets. If the Times won’t push back harder, who can? If the Times leads the pack to infamy, who can or will stand back?

In the days before Rupert Murdoch bought the London Times, that paper was known as “The Thunderer” for its strongly voiced editorials. Today, the New York Times would have to be known as “The Supplicant” for its supine reaction to campaign demands for censorship authority.

Were the federal government itself to demand the power to approve or dismiss quotes, the Times probably would roar its defense of the First Amendment. Under the conditions imposed by the presidential campaigns — private enterprise — it’s a wimp.

Joining the Times are the Washington Post, Bloomberg News and Reuters. They’re no better. I’m waiting for editors’ notes atop these sanitized stories, warning us that we’re only getting what the presidential campaigns approved.
Poynter Online — a nonpartisan journalism voice — said “many journalists spoke about the editing only granted anonymity, an irony that did not escape them.” The alternative is to be denied interviews. Acquiescing can only reinforce the image of reporters as lap dogs, stenographically sharing what their subjects toss them.

So some of our leading news media have become submissive propagandists who’ve abdicated independent news judgment and discarded ethics statements after using them as toilet paper. This matters to Enquirer readers because it uses national politics stories affected by these hidden agreements.

To its credit, the Associated Press, the National Journal and McClatchy newspapers skip interviews if quote approval is required. Poynter quoted AP spokesman Paul Colford saying, “We don’t permit quote approval. We have declined interviews that have come with this contingency.” AP reporters do, however, agree to off-the-record background interviews and negotiate to get certain parts of the record. “You’d be a fool to turn those down,” Colford added.

That’s also risky. If off-the-record information is used, the source can sue for breaking a binding oral promise/contract.

CONTACT BEN KAUFMAN: [email protected]

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