Opinion

Jack Shafer

Banning quote approval sounds good, but can it work?

By Jack Shafer
September 21, 2012

New York Times reporter Jeremy W. Peters rolled a stink bomb into the church of journalism in July with his Page One story revelation about the widespread practice of “quote approval.” It turns out that reporters from many top news outlets covering the White House and the Obama and Romney campaigns – including the Times, Bloomberg, the Washington Post, Reuters, Vanity Fair, and others – regularly allow Obama and Romney staffers and strategists to dictate terms for interviews that permit them to rewrite or even spike things they’ve said.

Former CBS News anchor Dan Rather called the quote approval “a jaw-dropping turn in journalism” and a “Faustian bargain,” warning that it could make reporters “an operative arm of the administration or campaign they are covering.” Edward Wasserman, incoming dean of the University of California at Berkeley journalism school told NPR’s On the Media that it reduced an interview to “a press release.” Others compared the practice to “quote doctoring,” and editors at National Journal, Associated Press, McClatchy Newspapers and the Washington Examiner promptly banned it from their pages.

Yesterday, after an influential column by David Carr, one of its own, and a prodding blog item by Margaret Sullivan, its new public editor, the Times issued its own prohibition against after-the-fact “quote approval.”

Erik Wemple spotted the very visible loophole in the Times policy shortly after it was promulgated and drove his Washington Post blog through it. All reporters need do, explained Wemple, is call White House sources to talk about an issue; wait for the sources to agree to a “background” interview; agree to attribute the quotations to a “White House official;” then ask the source for additional quotations on the record. As Wemple notes, this arrangement would not violate the new Times policy, which appears to ban quote approval only as a precondition for an interview.

Thus, quote approval is reborn!

As best as I can tell, quote approval thrives in the places where reporters vastly outnumber sources, creating a scarcity arrangement that sources can – and do – capitalize on. Scarce sources in such places as the White House, Capitol Hill, some federal agencies, Silicon Valley, Hollywood and the entertainment industry, and on Wall Street have the necessary leverage to extract concessions out of the reporters covering them. In recent years, with the rise of a zillion websites covering politics, business, entertainment and tech, reporters on these beats have become more plentiful, making sources ever more scarce.

Reporters who work on beats where sources outnumber them have the easiest time waving off ridiculous sourcing demands. When scarce sources leave their Washington cocoons for flyover country, they’re often shocked at the way outside-the-Beltway reporters treat them. My favorite anecdote dates to 2004, when Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz traveled to the Plains states to observe a military ceremony and give a speech in Omaha, Nebraska. His office invited reporters from the Kansas City Star, the Des Moines Register, the Lincoln Journal Star and the Omaha World-Herald to chat with the deputy secretary, and his public affairs officer began the session by asking that Wolfowitz comments be attributed to a “senior Defense Department official.” The reporters rebelled. One explained that the interview would be of no professional value if he couldn’t name Wolfowitz. Another said there was no point to the charade of attributing the remarks to a senior Defense Department official as Wolfowitz was the only senior Defense Department official in the region. Wolfowitz folded, agreeing to stay on the record unless he felt pressed to say something on background, which he did a couple of times to no real consequence, according to the reporters.

I can’t recall having ever agreed to quote approval in order to win an interview – but mine is a narrow boast. I don’t think I’ve ever been asked. I’ve agreed to read back quotations – especially when reporting on technical, scientific, medical or legal topics where thin slices of fact loom fat in the greater argument. But that’s to serve accuracy, not to help a source disavow something he said on the record and wished he hadn’t. (I resist going off the record, but that’s another column.)

While many inside and outside the Times praised the development of a formal and public policy to repel control-freak sources, in practice it’s hard to imagine it making much difference. Besides, there are a dozen other ways sources can make reporters dance to their tune. Freeze them out. Give them kibble while giving other reporters sirloin. Talk ill of them to other potential sources. Sabotage them socially, which spells devastation for a certain breed of Washington reporter. Cooperate with the junior beat reporter to undermine the senior beat reporter on the same publication. Let other reporters know what scoops he’s working on.

Washington’s permanent government plays the long game and can discipline even the most valiant reporter. For example, over the past decade, editors at the nation’s top newspapers (Washington Post, New York Times, Los Angeles Times and the like) have been making all the right noises about reducing anonymous sources from the page, and yet these anonymice continue to thrive, notably in Washington stories. But at least readers can independently count the number of anonymous sources being used. While the Times‘s new policy on quote approval looks good on paper, readers will have no way to judge whether it’s being rigorously enforced. To my ears, it sounds as if the Times hasn’t solved the problem as much as put all of its reporters on double-secret probation.

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Comments
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Controlling freedom of speech and freedom of the press because they might be too reckless or even false is one thing but trying to control those freedoms because reporters might be reporting too accurately is another.

And this is only part of the issue. I can’t remember the last time I ever heard a politician, celebrity or even a private person or institution bring a suit for libel or slander. The media is too ubiquitous and moves far too fast to be able to stop the damage effectively perhaps?

I tend to see the news already as a form of infotainment.
The media – all of it – and especially so much one can find on the internet because no one seems to be accountable, could easily be regarded as pulp fiction.

I read a few years ago that the Chinese government wanted a Wall Street Journal type business paper but they also wanted the ability to censer it. They may as well kiss truth in reporting of a single “fact” in it goodbye.

American politicians and celebrities do not live in a Forbidden City. They live in a fish bowl.

This article is almost stomach turning and makes the continuous exposure of every aspect of King Louis XIV and life at Versailles look like a model of transparency and sincerity. That man was not a vainglorious buffoon but was actually trying to be verifiable and trustworthy and suffered a restriction of his movements and actions that was very nearly inhuman. But he was surrounded by over fed and far too powerful ditzes who were obsessed with his personal actions but far less concerned with what actually went on in councils. Those all tended to be private and very controlled.

That man never stopped working and was never outside the public eye. Not even when he took a dump or made love to his wife or his mistresses.

But in return – he demanded respect for everything he did. He had enormous self-control and that is never something that can be said for the usual politician.

There is, or should be, a nearly unbearable price for control and the desire for imperial powers. Those who control it should have even more self-control and self-discipline than those they send to do their dirty work for them and that has definitely not been the case in politics or almost anywhere else, as far as I can see, for most of my life during the last 60 years.

The events of the world moved so much more slowly then. Not even very durable Louis would survive today (for a reign of over 60 years – one of the longest in recorded history and I think, just short of Rameses II.

I am almost laughing that a government that wants the almost uncontrolled ability to spy on all its citizens doesn’t like the fact that they might also have the technological means to spy on them.

What’s good for the Goose….

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive
 

We must remember that the world is not totally corrupt — but rather it is PERFECTLY corrupt.

Whoever possesses power, even a tiny bit of power, is immediately corrupted by it, to the degree of the power.

The pharmaceutical industry possesses great power in the form of a gigantic stream of profits from the medical industry. Thus they are corrupted to a great degree. The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) is really part of their industry. The FDA doesn’t run the pharmaceutical industry, rather the pharmaceutical industry runs the FDA. The chief executives of the pharmaceutical industry are the chief executives of the FDA. It’s the exact same people.

And likewise with the news industry, in a way. The news industry and the political industry are the same group of people. They work together. They go to the same parties. The eat their meals together. They inter-marry, literally.

We have an election in America that is in the midst of a major financial crisis, threatening our existence as a society, and yet we have a choice between two candidates that are really, at bottom, offering the same old thing that caused the financial crisis.

There are no revolutionaries running in this election, according to our well-informed major news organizations. There is nobody running who wants to limit the military-industrial complex, or stop the daily drone killings.

Yes, the American news system has been — as all of us humans would be — perfectly corrupted by their power, to the degree power is possessed.

Posted by AdamSmith | Report as abusive
 

Maybe corruption isn’t the core issue at all? Balance of powers is. And that phrase never seems to get mentioned. It has been an issue in the entire planet’s political life since states have been in existence. We all learn about it in school and have been waging wars for ten years over it claiming that the people of the ME need more representation to balance the power of the state or against actors we claim shouldn’t be monopolizing the power of the state. Yet the term itself is almost unconscious and hasn’t been used in any of these comments for as long as I have been reading them. Maybe I just never seem to see it?

That is the underlying issue in the financial debacle, and the issue of the shrinking middle class. A lop sided accumulation of wealth, knowledge, sophistication and influence at the highest levels of this society seems to create an enormous counter weight of small holders, and even the impoverished, at the bottom. The balance of power within the US and elsewhere seems to be tipping from a balance of power played out in the voting booth where the participants are actually trying to change the priorities of the government as they are expected to, to one where the vote is far outweighed, and possibly made irrelevant, by institutional decisions that seem to have lives and make demands of their own.

Even the issue of conflict of interest, as Adam_Smith mentions of the FDA and the media industries, is about who occupies the opposite pole to those industries. I didn’t check, but if what he says is correct and I wouldn’t be at all surprised, then it is an issue of the power of an industry to control both sides of an equation and leave the rest of the country to settle for what they have decided for it. The FDA is supposed to occupy the balancing side of the relationship between the food and drug industries and the consumer. The resources at stake, the complexity of the processes and the fact that it is hard to know how the industries work if one doesn’t work in them, tends to mean that they are both the producers and their own regulators. That is the essence of the corruption he mentions. Does it really matter if it is perfect?

Somehow the balance of powers has been broken in this country. Not in the statutes and agencies of government as they are defined by the Constitution, but because it faces conflicts, competition and technological change that has unbalanced previously establish balances. And I hate to admit it, but education can make one dumber, or perhaps, it makes one very preoccupied.

And what are the opposite force or forces that could be used to staff FDA positions if the industries can’t be fully trusted to do that?

It is always popularly assumed that China doesn’t live with a sense of the balance of powers and I am not at all sure that is the case. Every society must have to do it instinctively. I’m not even sure it is true for may monarchies we claim are dictatorships except that by the definition of democratic constitutions, monarchies and dictatorships are grossly unbalanced.

The trouble is – how can one recognize a balance when one sees it?

The world is in a state of disequilibrium that is very dangerous. It may be perfectly corrupt but I don’t think it is ever perfectly balanced. Perhaps balance of powers is an obsolete concept? I very much doubt that. Unbalanced societies could be like unbalanced individuals. But for the life of me – I’m not at all sure what the ingredients of a balanced life are any more or where one could find a good example in whole or in part. I think it is likely one will find them in part. But who seems to agree with someone else’s definition of a balanced life?

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive
 

Just one more example of the dramatic difference between what is supposed to be, what is reputed, and reality. Somehow the powerful think that if they can control “news” organizations and make them the handmaidens of power itself that they can control what is thought and said.

Such behavior has led to our own, granted pale, imitations of Pravda and Izvestnia. But it does no favors to self-government, nor to representative government, nor to truth. Ultimately it breeds cynical contempt for all public expressions of opinion. And complaints from the powerful themselves that they are neither believed nor accepted.

Posted by usagadfly | Report as abusive
 

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