BOB GARFIELD: The revelation in The New York Times this week was, to quote Dan Rather on the subject, “jaw-dropping.” Washington reporters covering the presidential campaign and other inside the beltway beats routinely send quotes back to their sources for approval. It works like this: An Obama campaign official, say, gives an interview on background. That means nothing can be attributed to him or her unless the reporter can persuade the source, after the fact, to go on the record. On background is sketchy unto itself but an age-old practice.
The twist revealed in The Times was that as reporters write their stories, they submit the specific quotes they want to include back to the source for approval. The campaigns then clean up the quotes to denude them of anything potentially detrimental to the campaign.
Washington reporting is well known for permitting varying degrees of subterfuge by official sources. Blind quotes are sadly routine, as are misleading attributions, such as a senior State Department official when the speaker is the Secretary of State. But the notion of quote approval, so contrary to basic journalism ethics, shocked even old hands. Former CBS Evening News Anchor Rather, who’s been around the block a few times, called the practice a sellout, and he was not alone.
EDWARD WASSERMAN: I think at this point you're no longer talking about an interview; you’re talking about a press release.
BOB GARFIELD: Edward Wasserman is the Knight Professor of Journalism Ethics at Washington and Lee University.
EDWARD WASSERMAN: And if quotes are going to be used, they ought to be indicating that these are managed quotes, that these quotes have been approved, they’ve been judiciously selected, they’ve been pruned. And this is no different from a press release. And what happens is Washington becomes no different from Beijing, in terms of reporting what authorities want reported.
MARK LEIBOVICH: Either you're talking on the record or you're not talking on the record.
BOB GARFIELD: Mark Leibovich is chief national correspondent for The New York Times Magazine.
MARK LEIBOVICH: Any sort of post facto negotiations is bad and it’s going to 1) be a big annoyance, and 2) it changes the power dynamic of what we do in an area in which we have increasingly less power. So I think it’s something that we should hold onto very tightly.
BOB GARFIELD: On the other hand, he says, the current environment demands that reporters weigh the evil of having sources intervene in the reporting process against the evil of not having access to the people in power, and more than once, he’s opted for the access.
MARK LEIBOVICH: I do it probably more regularly than I should. I would love there to be some kind of blanket policy that The New York Times puts in place that I could hide behind [LAUGHS] or actually just sort of wield as a tool, because I don’t like to do it. I would like to do it less; I would like to do it not at all.
BOB GARFIELD: Among the other news organizations playing in the game are The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Bloomberg, Vanity Fair and Reuters.
In the aftermath of the Times story by reporter Jeremy W. Peters, one organization said it takes no part in such negotiating, and that would be the Associated Press, whose spokesman Paul Colford declared that the AP wants no part of, quote, “the rinse cycle.” We spoke to AP’s Washington Bureau Chief Sally Buzbee.
SALLY BUZBEE: Well, I talk to my reporters about these issues all the time, and they have a very clear idea of what we expect from them. It is a guideline that the reporters are expected to follow, and I’m pretty confident they do.
BOB GARFIELD: Buzbee, however, was less unequivocal than the AP spokesman. She acknowledged that negotiations over on-background material get pretty convoluted.
SALLY BUZBEE: I think that we work really hard not to get manipulated by people, but campaign coverage, in particular, is a battle between the media and the campaign. It’s a battle. It’s a full-throttle [LAUGHS] battle. The media wants to find out as much as it can about what the candidate is really like, what they’re planning to do, what their positions are, what decisions they’re gonna make, and the campaign has an absolute interest in controlling its message and its timing and all these kinds of things.
BOB GARFIELD: It is a classic power struggle but you might ask, what is everybody so afraid of? The campaigns desperately need the media to get their talking points out, and the media need the access. Why can’t everybody just get along? Here’s why.
ERIC FEHRNSTROM: Well, I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign; everything changes. It’s almost like an Etch-a-Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and we start all over again.
BOB GARFIELD: That was Romney campaign spokesman, Eric Fehrnstrom, back in March, being caught in a truth. He was answering a question about whether the nominee would move closer to the political center after the hard right primary.
But the observation that Romney could simply erase a primary’s worth of stated positions was exactly the sort of gaffe pounced on by the press and the Obama campaign that has both camps paranoid about what slip of the tongue, misstatement or other careless remark might jump up to bite them.
Shame on them for strong-arming the media into revisionist journalism, but shame too on the media for fixating on the trivial “gotchas” that so obsess them. Professor Wasserman.
EDWARD WASSERMAN: We need to acknowledge that one of the sad facts about this is the degree to which election-related news has become so denatured and so circumscribed and so oriented to the utterances of campaign managers and trying to catch them in inappropriate remarks, that they’ve sort of forgotten that what an election is about what the public, what the electorate thinks.
BOB GARFIELD: But what if news organizations just refuse to play by other people’s rules? What if they just said no? Ian Traynor is the European editor for The Guardian. Years ago, in reporting a story in Germany where quote approval is required for every utterance by every public official, he refused on deadline to submit quotes back to the German Minister of Defense.
IAN TRAYNOR: And we just killed the story, and I just told the defense minister, sorry, we don’t agree to your conditions, and that’s that.
BOB GARFIELD: When the story did not appear the next day, the defense ministry came groveling back with an apology, because they had plenty of power to throw around but they did not have the power of the press.