Time for a United Front  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   June/July 2012

Time for a United Front   

News organizations should band together and stop agreeing to allow quote approval as the price for on-the–record interviews. Tues., July 24, 2012.

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


It's a good start. But it's only that.

McClatchy and National Journal have announced, commendably, that their reporters won't be accepting interviews that come with quote-approval strings.

This after the Associated Press announced that it doesn't tolerate such conditions for interviews, and the New York Times said it was reviewing its policy on the matter.

So there's positive momentum. But to put a stake through the heart of this pernicious practice, it's crucial that all news organizations covering the presidential campaign, or a huge majority of them, take the same approach.

The issue came to the fore after the New York Times' Jeremy W. Peters reported on July 15 that it was common practice for both the Obama and Romney campaigns to insist on the right to edit quotes in on-the-record interviews.  Otherwise, no interviews.

"The quotations come back redacted, stripped of colorful metaphors, colloquial language and anything even mildly provocative." Peters wrote in his lead, referring to quotes sent to Obama headquarters in Chicago.

Among the news outlets that have agreed to quote approval, the article said, are such big-hitters as Bloomberg, the Washington Post, Vanity Fair, Reuters and, yes, the New York Times.

The article clearly struck a nerve, as the news organizations' responses suggest. So maybe this is an opportune time to bury the practice. But it's going to take a united front to make that happen.

Otherwise, if some are in and some are out, the practice will persevere. Some scoop-happy journalist at a news outlet that doesn't ban quote approval will gladly allow the source to massage the message in exchange for an exclusive.

That's how that dreaded Washington staple, the background briefing, has endured.  At these sessions, government officials talk to reporters with the condition that they not be identified by name. Thus the omnipresence of "senior administration officials" and the like in Washington copy.

Years ago, during the Nixon administration, then-Washington Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee decided he had enough of those anonymous briefings. So he told his reporters that when an official said that a session would be on background – the information couldn't be attributed to a named source – they should flee the premises.

Great idea. But the New York Times and Wall Street Journal didn't follow the Post's lead, and they ran good stories that the virtuous Post didn't. As Ben H. Bagdikian wrote in his AJR piece on the anti-anonymity initiative, "For a fierce competitor like Bradlee, that was intolerable. The experiment ended after two days."

So if we are going to obliterate the effort by the campaigns to sanitize, water down and otherwise dilute quotes, it's all hands on deck. The Times, the Post, Bloomberg, Reuters, Vanity Fair and everyone else needs to follow the lead of the AP, McClatchy and National Journal.

It's not that hard--just say no.

--

UPDATE: More good news. A memo to the staff from Bloomberg News Executive Editor Susan Goldberg and others says that, while the Times story includes Bloomberg among news outlets that have agreed to quote approval, that is not consistent with company policy.

The memo says:

"So let's clarify, to make sure there is no misunderstanding about what we do and don't do:

"1. It is totally appropriate to negotiate with a news source to get something initially said on background moved on-the-record, so it can be used in a story. In this type of discussion, the source might be willing to say what was stated on background, but with slightly altered language – to clean up a profanity, for example. This is fine.

"2. What isn't fine is sending quotes to the source or a press office for their revision or rewriting. In such a case, you would no longer know who is actually uttering/writing the words, and it is no longer a negotiation but a surrender of editorial control.

"3. The Bloomberg Way forbids direct anonymous quotes. So, information given on background or not-for-attribution can only be paraphrased unless you reach an agreement with the source (see #1 above). If quotes given on background can't be negotiated onto the record in an acceptable manner, we always have the fallback of the paraphrase."

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