Banning quote approval sounds good, but can it work?
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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