Opinion

Jack Shafer

Banning quote approval sounds good, but can it work?

Jack Shafer
Sep 21, 2012 22:53 UTC

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.

Turning the morning news into soap opera

Jack Shafer
Jun 21, 2012 21:50 UTC

Ann Curry, the second fiddle on NBC’s Today show, is apparently being shown the door. That news was broken yesterday afternoon by Brian Stelter, the prolific media reporter of the New York Times on the newspaper’s website, and that 1,100-word story earned prominent placement on Page One of the business section of this morning’s paper.

I’ll forgive you in advance if you don’t care whether Curry continues on Today or if you don’t care whether she finds a slot elsewhere in the NBC empire, just as long as you forgive me for not giving a fig either. It’s not that I dislike Ann Curry or Today‘s first fiddle, Matt Lauer, or even Today‘s morning-show competition. It’s just that I dislike the shows for being dulled-down messes of news, entertainment and talk. If I watch any of them, it’s by accident.

My lack of interest in the morning-show mix puts me in the majority. Today, which is usually the number-one-rated program, and ABC’s Good Morning America, which took that position a couple of times this spring, draw an average of fewer than 5 million viewers. The third-ranked show, CBS’s This Morning, pulls in a little more than 2 million viewers. In a country of 311 million, that’s minimal interest.

Times public editor smashes himself with boomerang

Jack Shafer
Jan 12, 2012 23:50 UTC

New York Times Public Editor Arthur Brisbane made a huge mistake in his morning blog item titled “Should the Times Be a Truth Vigilante?” for which the Web has been punishing him all day. Brisbane’s mistake wasn’t to bring up the topic of how much time, space and effort reporters should commit to truth-squadding the iffy stuff that oozes out of the mouths of politicians, other notables and their spokesmen.

It’s a worthy topic. Brisbane’s mistake was to pose the topic as question — as if a journalist with his sort of experience didn’t know what the correct answer is — and then to stupidly ask and re-ask the question in the final paragraphs of his item, as if he were Phil Donahue with microphone in hand, rushing up and down the carpeted stairway eager to collect comments from the studio audience.

The awesome stupidity of Brisbane’s blog inspired prominent citizens of Twitterville, as well as Salon’s Alex Pareene, HuffPo’s Jason Linkins, Poynter’s Craig Silverman, New York University’s Jay Rosen, and Boing Boing’s Rob Beschizza, to take up their keyboards. “Should the New York Times — America’s ‘newspaper of record’ — print the truth?” is how Pareene restated Brisbane’s question in his lede. “Brisbane’s job is to embarrass the NY Times for its shortcomings, not to become one of them,” tweeted Village Voice Editor Tony Ortega.

You know where you can stick that Southern civility?

Jack Shafer
Nov 2, 2011 21:17 UTC

The last refuge of a bogus trend story is the claim that it “got people talking.”

If the author and editors of “A Last Bastion of Civility, the South, Sees Manners Decline” from today’s New York Times have adjourned to a coffee shop to eavesdrop on the conversation, I suspect they’re hearing what I’m thinking: Does that bold assertion come with evidence?

Here are a few examples from the  “growing portfolio” of behaviors the Times draws on to plot the decline of Southern manners.

When anonymice attack

Jack Shafer
Oct 19, 2011 00:02 UTC

Washington’s anonymous sources are disagreeing with one another today.

In the lead story in today’s New York Times (“U.S. Debated Cyberwarfare in Attack Plan on Libya”), the anonymous sources tell reporters Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker that the issue of whether or not to attack Libya with cyberweapons was “intensely debated” by the Obama administration last March.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post‘s catch-up story by Ellen Nakashima that runs on A5 in today’s print edition, disputes an important element of the Times revelation. Relying on its own anonymice, the Post piece confirms that a cyberwarfare debate took place but asserts unequivocally that the debate “did not reach the White House” according to Pentagon officials. [Emphasis added.]

Obviously, either the Times or the Post owes its readers a correction because the administration cannot have “intensely debated” cyberwar against the Libyan military at the same time that it did not. Such  a fundamental contradiction screams out for a follow-up story by both papers, but will we see them?

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