BOB GARFIELD: Two weeks ago, we reported on a stunning revelation in The New York Times of a practice employed by The New York Times and most other news organizations with a Washington presence called “quote approval.” An extension of the common, albeit sketchy, practice of on-background interviews, it puts reporters in the position of submitting interview quotes back to the source who determines whether and in what form they may appear. Far be it from us to characterize this conduct as a shameful, craven, degrading surrender of independence and virtual conspiracy of subterfuge, so we asked media ethicist Edward Wasserman to weigh in.
EDWARD WASSERMAN: I think at this point you’re no longer talking about an interview; you’re talking about a press release. And what happens is Washington becomes no different from Beijing in terms of reporting what authorities want reported.
BOB GARFIELD: Yeah, what he said. To add insult to injury, a Washington Post reporter was outed as having not only shared proposed quotes with sources but an entire draft of a story on Texas education standards to officials of the University of Texas. The backlash was swift.
Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli was obliged to issue new ethics guidance for his staff, absolutely and unequivocally forbidding quote approval and draft-sharing, unless, you know, it’s convenient. Quoting Brauchli here, “We should not allow sources to change what was said in an original interview, although accuracy or the risk of losing an on-the-record quote from a crucial source may sometimes require it. A better and more acceptable alternative is to permit a source to add to a quotation and then explain that sequence to readers.” As someone once said, you can’t make this stuff up.
Anyway, enter the Washington Bureau of McClatchy Newspapers. Bureau Chief Jim Asher also issued a communiqué on the subject. He offered it to his readers, quote, “I make this commitment to our readers and to our citizens. McClatchy journalists will report fairly and independently. We will not make deals with those in power, regardless of party or philosophy.”
Independence for the Washington press corps — what an odd and splendid idea? And you can quote me on that. But, let me see it first.