By Carl Sessions Stepp
Carl Sessions Stepp (firstname.lastname@example.org) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.
After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.
In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.
OK, let's take the easy parts first. Is it craven and deplorable for reporters to habitually let political sources review and modify their quotes as a condition of interviews, as the New York Times described this week?
Should reporters push back harder? Should editors impose rules such as "only as a last resort on rare and vital stories"? Should the reporter's posture be, "If you won't talk to me, I'll find someone who will...and you may not like what they say"?
Yes, all around.
But let's also consider the harder part: what sources fear.
Many are surely playing CYA politics. But others are genuinely afraid of career suicide over a foolish slip-up. Sources operate in a relentless "gotcha" culture these days, where almost every word and deed can find itself morphed into the cable-Internet-Tweetworld circus act of the day.
I sympathize. I'm a college professor, which means that I stand in front of people and talk a lot. I myself am appalled at the number of stupid things I say. I get into a rapid-fire exchange of ideas and quips with students, and suddenly something inappropriate pops out.
Luckily, as far as I know, none of my brainless remarks are currently playing on YouTube. But you never know.
Some may disagree, but I don't think this makes me a bad person. Please tip your halo if you've never said anything sexist, racist, dirty, insensitive, insulting or just lousily phrased.
This is not in any way an excuse. From professors to presidents, public figures who say rotten things deserve to be held accountable.
But holding them accountable presents a challenge: telling the difference between a rare, genuinely regretted slip and a pattern that reflects repugnant underlying attitudes. Or between a poorly worded spontaneous jab and a persistent record of nastiness.
Clearly there is a journalistic line to be drawn here. As the Times reported it, insisting on quote review has become "standard practice for the Obama campaign," and common for others as well. At stake is whether some sources will do interviews at all. But reporters can play harder ball. It's an old but powerful line that says if you're not willing to talk, someone else will be – and they're unlikely to be as friendly to your views.
Still, it isn't unreasonable for sources to be nervous about the media's omnivorous appetite for potential gaffes. So it wouldn't hurt for journalists to tone down the "gotcha" glee at catching someone in the headlights. Consider some of the terms used for such moments: the "money shot," the "killer quote," the "viral video." They suggest an unseemly interest in the ambush.
I have argued before for putting almost everything on the record and out to the public. But I also favor considering context, patterns and the long perspective in calibrating our reaction.
Politicians should talk on the record, and reporters should report what they say without "revise and consent" rules.
But we should also temper how we respond to what we hear. Not every stupid mistake or embarrassing slip of the tongue is a firing offense. What lines, if crossed at all, should bring irreversible consequences? When should we give second chances? Are there options between doing nothing and assembling the firing squad?
Above all, we should report and discuss all this in the open. Letting sources retract dumb things doesn't change their dumbness. It just leaves the public out of the deliberations.