The quest for transparency in Washington has long been frustrating. For years government officials have loved briefing journalists on background, meaning their quotes can be used but the source cannot be identified by name. That's good for the officials' deniability, not so much for the journalists' credibility.
Periodically journalists have mounted campaigns to try to reverse the practice. Ben Bradlee briefly banned stories based on background briefings from the Washington Post. Some have even tried humor as a weapon. Columnist Art Buchwald once tweaked then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger for his penchant for the background briefing by attributing information to a "high U.S. official with wavy hair, horn-rimmed glasses and a German accent."
But background has proven to be a formidable foe.
It was an effort to cure the anonymity epidemic during the Clinton administration that gave rise to the current pernicious practice of quote approval, New York Times White House correspondent Peter Baker tells AJR senior contributing writer Jodi Enda.
As editors pushed reporters to get material on the record, "officialdom found a way to exploit it," Baker says. "They thought, 'We can make this the default setting, in which we only speak with approval of what quotes go with our names.' It became an increasingly common practice. With each successive year and each successive administration, it got worse."
There are two aspects to quote approval. One is getting permission to use the material. Then there is the massaging of the quotes. In his piece that kicked off the quote approval controversy in July, the New York Times' Jeremy W. Peters portrayed the latter as a popular practice on the campaign trail.
I do see value in reading quotes back to sources. For one thing, note-taking is hardly a precise science, and not even the fastest-scrawling and fastest-typing reporter can take everything down accurately. Even recorded interviews can be hard to decipher at times. Also, there are instances when the source may have made a mistake, saying something and later realizing the information was wrong.
At AJR, we read back quotes during the fact-checking process. And it has paid dividends. Not long ago a source told us that he had said "assets" when our writer had heard "aspects." In context, it was clear that he was right and we had misheard. The tricky part comes when sources realize they have been too candid and want to back away from the material, or when they want to tone down or soften their language. At that point, you doublecheck with the writer. If the writer is certain, you go with it.
The key question is control. You can't let the source edit the story. The final call has to remain with the news organization.
There are some circumstances when you can see the allure of making a bargain with the devil. For example, author Michael Lewis was allowed extensive access to President Barack Obama for a piece for Vanity Fair. But the proximity came with a steep price tag: The White House could decide what quotes he could use. The result was an extremely vivid portrait of the president. And Lewis told the New York Times that he was permitted to use about 95 percent of what he heard. Still, it's an arrangement that puts journalism at the top of a slippery slope.
After Peters' article thrust quote approval into the journalistic conversation, there was a healthy pushback, as the New York Times, McClatchy and National Journal made it clear they would not kowtow to the quote-approval Mafia. Let's hope this unwelcome development is at last on the run.
The Washington Post made a smart choice in November when it named Marty Baron its new executive editor, succeeding Marcus Brauchli. Baron has the perfect profile for the job. During his 11 years at the Globe, he presided over a significantly shrinking enterprise. Yet he managed to keep the level of the Globe's journalism quite high. He spearheaded the paper's aggressive coverage of the Catholic priest scandal, and the paper won six Pulitzers during his tenure.
The Post is one of the storied brands in the U.S. media world, but it has shed hundreds of experienced journalists as it struggles to maintain in the digital era. In addition to the challenges facing all newspapers, it has been rocked by the decline of its Kaplan education arm, once a cash cow that protected the expensive newspapering. While the Post continues to do some excellent work, the gap between it and the New York Times has grown into a chasm. Baron's experience managing downward will come in very handy.
Baron is not a flashy figure like the sainted Ben Bradlee. But just as Bradlee successor Len Downie, not nearly as mesmerizing a character, could inspire with his powerful commitment to journalism and doing the right thing, Baron's insistence on excellence could make him a forceful leader in a newsroom trying to execute topflight journalism with shrinking resources.