AJR  Features
From AJR,   December 2012/January 2013

The Quote Approval Conundrum   

Pushing back against the effort by federal officials and campaign operatives to control the content of interviews . Fri., November 30, 2012.

By Jodi Enda
Senior contributing writer Jodi Enda (jaenda@gmail.com) has written about Politico, changes in campaign coverage in the age of Twitter and Bloomberg News in recent issues of AJR.      

When he worked in the White House press office, Reid Cherlin made a practice of doing something journalists abhor: He filtered quotes.

Cherlin, in keeping with a custom in the Obama administration, permitted reporters to interview high-ranking officials only if they agreed to run quotes by him before attributing them, by name, to their source.

The idea, he says, was to keep quotes "out of the public realm."

Just the opposite of what journalists want.

Just the opposite of what Cherlin himself now wants.

After working for two years in Barack Obama's first presidential campaign and another two in the White House, Cherlin switched roles in March 2011 and became one of a rare breed in politics, a flack turned hack. Now, rather than sheltering sources, he works to develop them. Rather than killing quotes, he works to publish them. At times, that has put him in the thorny position of petitioning onetime colleagues for permission to quote his former bosses by name. At times, that has put him in the awkward spot of yielding to an argument he used to espouse.

"I am in a position of insisting on quote approval as an Obama spokesman and grappling with it now as a writer. I can see both sides," says Cherlin, a New York-based freelancer who has a contract to cover politics for GQ. "I don't see it as sinister, but I do find it frustrating. When I go back through my audio from these interviews, there are these great quotes, and people won't let me use them."

Journalists long have had to cut deals with sources in exchange for information. We agreed to allow people to talk on background or even off the record if we thought it would provide us with details or insights we couldn't otherwise obtain. We worked out arrangements that would allow us to identify sources as precisely as possible without disclosing their names if they would tell us sensitive information. We agreed to use their names in some instances and not in others.

We protected them, and they helped us. There was a balance of power.

But recently, that balance has shifted. As traditional media, particularly newspapers, have suffered reductions in size and influence and new media have gained prominence, news sources have reaped newfound power. They have more ways to get their message out, more people willing to spread it unchecked and a broader array of news organizations to talk to or ignore.

The shift is particularly pronounced in the world of national politics and its epicenter, Washington, a site of hyper-competition for participants and scribes alike.

Where the White House and presidential campaigns used to rely on the mainstream media to spread their story, they now often go straight to the public by posting their pronouncements on the Internet and pushing them in catchy ways via YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and countless other social media sites.

Where the White House and presidential campaigns used to have no choice but to deal with some would say kowtow to a relatively small stable of reporters from the networks and a handful of large newspapers and wire services, they now have their pick of reporters, bloggers, citizen journalists and even like-minded advocates from an overabundance of outlets, giving them more leeway to control both the message and the messenger.

And now we have quote approval, a process in which not only sources but their media handlers demand veto power over on-the-record quotes. Reporters don't have to accept this deal. But if they don't, Cherlin says, they frequently walk away from an interview with nothing in their notebooks but "pabulum."

Here's how it works: A reporter calls the White House press office seeking an interview with someone in the know the chief of staff, for instance, or the domestic policy adviser. Her request is granted, on one condition. The interview will be on background; she can quote the source only as a "senior administration official." If she wants to identify the person by name, she has to run the quotes by the official or the press person or, often, both. They, in turn, will cherry-pick and occasionally alter or add to the quotes.

Take it or leave it.

Cherlin says the arrangement is justified this way: "The whole idea of quote approval is not some sort of sinister information-suppression tool. It is actually just a cumbersome insurance policy." It is a way, he asserts, for spokespeople to make sure that neither they nor people close to the president make costly mistakes.

"It's a lot easier to operate if you can talk openly, off the record or on background, and then say, 'What do you want to quote me on?' " he says. "The focus was not on rewriting people's quotes or on what information you give out. It was a tool of convenience and self-preservation."

But quote approval is not simply a matter of preventing factual errors. Few reporters would deny an official a chance to clarify or correct a misstatement. Quote approval, which burst into the spotlight on the front page of the New York Times in July, is about controlling how information is disclosed. Every flack knows that a quote with a name attached to it especially a well-known name carries more weight than a quote attributed to an anonymous senior someone; that, in fact, a quote without a name might never see the light of day.

Which might be just what the White House wants.

Peter Baker traces the advent of quote approval to editors' laudable desire to reduce the reliance on anonymous quotes.

It started during President Bill Clinton's second term, says Baker, a New York Times White House reporter who at that time covered the beat for the Washington Post. The Clinton press office was so masterful at dealing with the media that it created a new category of communication, called "psych background," in which the loquacious president himself would brief reporters on what he was thinking as long as they didn't attribute anything to him, even without the telltale quotation marks. (This new way of doing things was such an open secret in the press corps that Clinton joked about it at the White House Correspondents' Dinner in 1996, when he was seeking reelection. "So," he told a few thousand people in the room and anyone watching on C-SPAN, "if we can all agree on the ground rules, I'd like to give you a sense of the musings of my inner candidate. You can attribute these remarks to a source inside the president's..suit." The ellipses indicate a comedic pause.)

Jokes aside, blind quotes had become so common in Washington in the late '90s often the rule rather than the exception that editors feared the media were losing credibility.

It wasn't the first time red flags had been raised on the issue. In one noteworthy incident, Ben Bradlee, then the executive editor of the Washington Post, banned unnamed sources during the Nixon administration, shortly before the Watergate scandal broke. Ben H. Bagdikian, who at that time was assistant managing editor for national news, wrote about Bradlee's decree more than three decades later in AJR.

"The Post's competitors, including the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, published important news stories that the Post did not have. The paper's readers were deprived of significant information. For a fierce competitor like Bradlee, that was intolerable," Bagdikian wrote.

"The experiment ended after two days."

In the Clinton era, most editors didn't ban anonymous quotes outright, but they pressed reporters to reduce their dependence on them. When reporters did quote unnamed sources, they often had to twist themselves into pretzels to explain why. (That policy continues at many papers to this day, though the explanations are often as feeble as "because he wasn't allowed to speak publicly.")

"The editors said, 'Go back to these sources. Get them to put things on the record,'" Baker recalls. "We were surprised at how willing they were. They usually didn't find it to be job threatening."

As time went on, however, "officialdom found a way to exploit it," Baker continues. "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."

The Bush administration routinely held briefings in which scores of reporters heard from such high-ranking officials as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, but couldn't quote them by name. Baker says the Bush White House once conducted a background briefing concerning a presidential trip to Russia while a reporter from ITAR-TASS, the Russian news agency, was in the room. It was unclear exactly whom the administration was hiding the briefer's identity from.

In one humorous twist, Vice President Dick Cheney gave himself away during a background briefing by accidentally referring to himself in the first person.

In due course, the core understanding between reporters and sources was turned on its head. The traditional default dictating that everything is on the record unless both parties agree otherwise was tossed. When it came to the Obama White House and, eventually, the president's campaign and that of Republican nominee Mitt Romney interviews were assumed to be on background unless another arrangement was spelled out.

"What's really objectionable is how much these guys who promised transparency are on background," Baker says, referring to Team Obama. "We're missing the forest for the trees here. These guys come to town from Chicago, they rent a hotel ballroom, they have a PowerPoint with 40 or 50 reporters and all of it's on background. And you know what they're talking about? Our polls!"

So, too, Republicans.

"Quote approval at the Romney campaign got to a pretty absurd point where the de facto was doing everything on background and e-mailing it for quote approval," says Ashley Parker, a New York Times reporter who covered Romney.

Rebecca Kaplan, who traveled with Romney and running mate Paul Ryan for National Journal and CBS News, recalls a time in April when she requested an interview with Beth Myers, a longtime Romney aide who had just been appointed to head his vice-presidential search. Upon granting the interview, campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul sent Kaplan an e-mail, which Kaplan still has. "Note that she can talk on background but quotes need to come through me for approval," Saul wrote of Myers.

The story was about Myers, not about Romney. Saul was vetting Myers' quotes about herself.

Following our phone interview, Kaplan checked her records on the story, published by National Journal April 16, and sent me an e-mail.

"After the interview, which was conducted on background, I e-mailed Andrea the quotes I would like to attribute to Beth on the record," Kaplan wrote. "Andrea requested a grammatical change to one quote that I never actually ended up using Beth had repeated the words 'he'll want to know' at the beginning and in the middle of a quote. It ended up being irrelevant since I didn't use the quote (I sent her everything I thought should be put on the record so as not to be boxed in while writing). Andrea also objected to two other quotes, at which point I called her. With one I explained the context it was about whether she would pull a Cheney and name herself VP which was that the question was both asked and answered in a tongue-in-cheek manner, and I did not intend to portray it as a serious issue. The other quote was about Romney being the decider...I asked Andrea what the objection to the quote was, and she didn't really have one so she let me use it.

"Ultimately, everything I needed was put on the record."

Indeed, a number of reporters tell me that the new process, though time consuming and cumbersome, rarely affects the content of a story. That is in part because the interviews seldom are off the record and, therefore, off limits but on background, which allows reporters to use the information and even the quotes as long as they don't name the source. Many say sources generally agree to attach their names to at least some quotes. And when they don't, reporters often don't quote them at all.

Steven Thomma, McClatchy's government and politics editor and a longtime White House correspondent, says he's submitted quotes to the Obama White House to get them on the record, but only on big projects. "They've agreed to put all of them on the record by name, not background," he says. Thomma, with whom I covered the Clinton White House for Knight Ridder, which was purchased by McClatchy, says no one has ever asked him to change a quote.

Thomma, Baker and some of their counterparts at other media outlets say they dislike the term "quote approval," as invoked by the White House and the campaigns, because it implies that reporters have ceded more ground than they actually have. The first New York Times story on the topic, written by Jeremy W. Peters and published July 15, reinforced that perception by saying that "politicians and their advisers are routinely demanding that reporters allow them final editing power over any published quotations."

Just the thought irritates Baker. "A lot of this is based on a misimpression, which is to say that we have turned over control of what goes in stories to sources. That is not true. That is flatly not true," he says, speaking in an indignant tone that contrasts sharply with his usual mild-mannered timbre. "We have not surrendered our stories to sources."

Doug Sosnik was everybody's go-to source.

The White House political director during Clinton's second term, Sosnik was affable, knowledgeable and talkative. He decided that it would benefit the president to have beat reporters understand what he was trying to accomplish and how.

Sosnik had three ways of talking to reporters: on the record, not for attribution or on background with an asterisk. The asterisk meant that at the end of the conversation, the reporter could ask him to put some or all of what he said on the record. But he got to choose.

"In the beginning, the reason was I was not on as sure a footing in terms of my self-confidence and, more importantly, my standing at the White House. If I'm on the record opining on something and I make a mistake, that could end my career or at least my ability to talk to reporters," says Sosnik, now a private consultant. Once he became more self-assured, Sosnik says, he continued to talk to reporters on background to help them figure out what was going on behind the scenes.

"I think there's a real value for me to tell you what I really think. But if I'm on the record, I can't say all that stuff," he says. "I think it was useful to me, and I think it was useful for the reporters."

Usually, Sosnik would chat for a while and then ask what the reporter would like on the record. He would approve a quote, reject it or, at times, add something new.

From a reporter's point of view, it wasn't optimal, but it wasn't bad either. Sosnik was more accessible and provided considerably more information on background and even on the record than many officials. He pulled back the curtain in a way that allowed reporters to write authoritatively. Sometimes he was more helpful than others, but the information he provided was reliable.

And the quote negotiations took place on the spot between the source and the reporter. No handler was involved.

Now, Sosnik says, reporting conditions at the White House and campaigns are more onerous.

"If I start to change the architecture of the quote, you've lost the quote," he says. "It's becoming a creation of a quote, negotiating word by word. That's outside the spirit of an interview."

Neither White House nor Romney campaign spokespeople responded to my repeated requests for interviews. When Peters wrote his story for the Times, Katie Hogan of the Obama campaign told him, "We are not putting anyone on the record for this story."

An interesting approach, but not one that is unique to officialdom. As I worked on this story, representatives of several news organizations either declined to speak or failed to return my calls, including the Associated Press, the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg News. A couple of reporters fed me tidbits on background, but I rejected a few sheepish requests to speak off the record.

As I concluded my interview with Sosnik, he jested: "And by the way, this was all on the record."

Of course. That's the default.

Reporters in Washington tell me they remain willing to let sources speak on background under terms that are mutually agreeable, that don't involve rewriting quotes and that don't include third parties read: PR types censoring other people's words. Many reporters, particularly seasoned writers from large publications, say no one has tried to modify quotes, perhaps because they know how such a suggestion would be greeted.

"We always try to talk to people on the record. But sometimes to talk to people at the White House or both campaigns, the only way you could talk to them was on background. I've done that many times," says Susan Page, USA Today's Washington bureau chief. "After the interview, or sometimes as the interview's concluding, I might send some quotes to see if I can get them on the record. I don't think that's a terribly nefarious practice.

"My experience with both campaigns was that they were reasonable about putting things on the record. And if they didn't, they didn't. Then I generally didn't use the quote," says Page, noting that USA Today frowns on the use of blind quotes. "One thing that has not happened with me is people tinkering with the quotes. That just hasn't been my experience."

Page and other reporters tell me that running quotes by sources at the end of an interview and getting a thumbs' up or down without changes at times allows them to get more quotes on the record than they could otherwise. Without the opportunity to negotiate, some sources simply clam up.

Roger Simon, chief political columnist for Politico, says he will grant anonymity to someone who would get in trouble by speaking on the record and who has something to tell him that he can't glean elsewhere.

"There's got to be some reason behind it. It's out of the ordinary. It's extraordinary," he says. But pushback is necessary. "Most of what people tell you is completely ordinary," Simon continues. "So I say, 'Why can't that be on the record? You're saying, 'The sky is blue.' You're saying, 'This is going to be a close race.' You're saying, 'We're confident of victory.' Why is that on background? More often than not, the person will go along."

As for quote approval: "If they want quote approval, let them go out and make a speech," Simon says. "That's quote approval."

Simon, who has covered presidential campaigns since 1976, says he doesn't know reporters who would allow sources or their handlers to rework quotes. "I don't recognize it as acceptable behavior at any news organization that I have ever worked for," he says. "We are supposed to be professionals. We do learn our trade, and part of what we learn is how to get the story, how to get to the truth, how to get people to expand on what they're saying, how to dig deep, how to probe beneath the surface. If, after you've gone through all that, you tell the person, 'Now you can go back and you can pick out the pearls you want.' Or even worse than that, 'You can change it. You can change the sow's ear into a silk purse and you'll never be embarrassed and you'll never make a mistake...'

"We're talking about making a deal to which the public is not a member," he continues. "The public hasn't signed on to this. The public doesn't know about it."

Simon's colleague, Glenn Thrush, who covers the White House for Politico, describes a more fluid relationship with sources. Thrush says he doesn't mind reading back quotes to people he has interviewed both so that they understand what he's quoting them as saying and so that he doesn't get anything wrong but insists he doesn't give them license to change things at will.

"This whole thing about quote approval is an interesting debate," Thrush tells me. "But you have to be careful about the term. You need a back and forth with sources in order to get things right."

Thrush says he doesn't see interviews in a vacuum. Each one is part of a relationship he has developed with a source. It is incumbent upon him, he says, to understand the context of the relationship and the information he is given.

"As we're getting off the phone, the smart ones will say, 'What are you going to say I said?' I read them back [the quotes]. Then they'll add one thing. If it's something useful, fine. If it contradicts what they said before, I don't use it," Thrush says.

"They know what they're going to say in their name or not before it goes in there," he says. "I will give them the context. I think it's important to let someone know if you're going to put all the weight of a premise in a background quote, if they feel comfortable with that or if they want to revise their opinion. This is the stuff reporters hate to do, because you never want someone to take back the story. I have had enough near-death experiences. When I get off that phone, I want to make sure that everything I report is true."

Thrush's approach carries obvious risks. It provides an opening for sources to try to take back or massage their words. But, he says it also builds trust, which serves him better in the long run.

"I'll negotiate about what's going to be on the record, and I'll let people know what's coming down the pike. But I would never, ever, ever give them veto power. EVER! I let them know that it's being done out of courtesy. It is something that I do out of mutual respect. They give me information and I'm giving them the knowledge of what is going to appear in print. Almost every conversation I have typically ends with, 'Can I put some or most of this on the record?'"

Major Garrett is mad at himself. His anger is palpable as we talk on the phone.

Garrett, a Washington fixture who covered the White House for National Journal through late November, allowed the White House to change a word. That's right. One word.

And he's not even sure what the word was in the first place.

But, as Garrett tells it, that's not the point. He was weak. He caved. He'll never do it again.

His story begins in July, when Garrett heard some people close to Obama political guru David Plouffe talking about something called "stray voltage." Garrett wanted to know what that was, so he booked an interview with Plouffe, a White House senior adviser.

"He said, 'Let's talk on background and you can bring quotes back to me,'" Garrett says. "I did. When I did, they were approved by the White House as I wrote them down."

Except for one word.

"I did not have a tape recorder on me that day. The White House tweaked one word that did not have a different meaning. It was not material. To be honest, I couldn't tell because the notes were fuzzy."

Many reporters might have let it go. After all, the change was immaterial and Garrett had trouble reading his notes.

But the experience rankled Garrett, who is now chief White House correspondent for CBS News and a National Journal contributor. He did not like the fact that he allowed a change, any change, to be made. He did not like the fact that the quotes were vetted by White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer, who was not in the room during the interview.

"I knew I was doing something that I wasn't particularly comfortable with," Garrett says. "Though the example is not necessarily shocking, the process, the theory behind it is and must be resolutely stopped. There can be no system in which independent journalists consent to any public officeholder or press aide altering the history of an interview for the purpose of massaging language or advancing the message of the White House. I let one word through, and I regret that."

Within days of his experience, Garrett received a call from the Times' Peters for a story on quote approval. His comments were fairly innocuous, but the story set off something of a firestorm, not only at National Journal but in news bureaus throughout the capital.

"We had long conversations in the newsroom about this," Garrett says. "I apologized to everybody. I felt it was a moment that I should have been stronger. I said, 'I feel I let you guys down.'"

Neither his editors nor his reporting colleagues blamed Garrett, who previously covered the White House for CNN and Fox News. But the Times story and ensuing discussions did lead to firm new policies at National Journal and several other outlets.

"It was like a cathartic moment in our newsroom," Garrett says. "We have standards, and we're going to reapply them."

National Journal Editor-in-Chief Ron Fournier, himself a former White House reporter for the AP, says that after Peters' story ran in the Times, he did a quick check and "realized this was happening in my own newsroom." Reporters, he says, were fearful that if they pushed back against White House and campaign rules, they would lose a competitive edge.

Fournier issued a new policy: "If a public official wants to use NJ as a platform for his/her point of view, the price of admission is a quote that is on-record, unedited and unadulterated."

He gave reporters cover. "I think reporters appreciate being able to say, 'No..I'm not going to let you edit my story,'" Fournier says now. "It puts the onus on the government official to talk on your conditions."

Fournier also says he gave his reporters permission to object to background briefings. He tells me about a time in 2004 when Sen. John Kerry, then the Democratic nominee for president, went to the rear of his plane to talk to reporters off the record.

"I was afraid he would say something that was newsworthy. My understanding of off the record is you can't use it. You take it to your grave. I'm a reporter, not a priest," Fournier says. "I told him, 'I'm taking notes and everything you say, I will report.' He said, 'OK,' and he turned around and walked away...

"It only takes one reporter," Fournier says. "[White House Press Secretary] Jay Carney could come out right now and say, 'We're going to have a background briefing.' It only takes one reporter to say, 'I'm going to quote you.' The poor guy at the podium has to decide whether to walk out."

So far, none of Fournier's reporters has tried that.

The Times story prompted several news organizations to issue policies banning quote approval. The Times itself issued a statement that began: "Despite our reporters' best efforts, we fear that demands for after-the-fact 'quote approval' by sources and their press aides have gone too far. The practice risks giving readers a mistaken impression that we are ceding too much control over a story to our sources. In its most extreme forms, it invites meddling by press aides and others that goes far beyond the traditional negotiations between reporter and source over the terms of an interview.

"So starting now, we want to draw a clear line on this. Citing Times policy, reporters should say no if a source demands, as a condition of an interview, that quotes be submitted afterward to the source or a press aide to review, approve or edit."

Times reporters say the policy gives them needed leverage without eliminating the flexibility required to get the story.

"It allows us to tell sources who ought not to be speaking on background or using quote approval, 'I'm sorry, our policy does not allow us to do that' or to say, 'Now we've spoken on background, now let's go on the record,'" the Times' Peter Baker says. "What they don't want us to do is to send people quotes and allow them to edit them."

McClatchy's Washington bureau chief, James Asher, wasted no time issuing a policy after reading the story in the Times. "To be clear, it is the bureau's policy that we do not alter accurate quotes from any source. And to the fullest extent possible, we do not make deals that we will clear quotes as a condition of interviews," he wrote in a policy posted July 20.

"The pure idiocy of agreeing to have quotes sanitized seemed to me to be so far beyond what journalists should be allowing," Asher tells me, adding that his reporters say they have not permitted that to occur.

Asher says he also is urging his reporters to push back against government officials who want to speak off the record, a growing trend not only in the White House but throughout federal departments.

"The fact of the matter is that if the official side of the government doesn't want to talk to you, there are plenty of other people who do," he says. "We aren't not getting facts, necessarily; we're not getting the spin that they want."

So what happens now? Will Washington return to the days in which on the record was the starting point, in which quotes were unalterable, in which the balance of power was, well, more balanced?

Reid Cherlin, the press aide turned reporter, says he thinks the new attention to quote approval will have some bearing.

"Now the armor's cracking," he says. "I think we'll be a lot more hesitant to accept it."

Several seasoned journalists tell me it's all about pushing back. Their younger counterparts, in particular, are more cowed, more willing to conduct e-mail conversations in which sources can carefully craft quotes, less prepared to stand up to power. They say journalists, old and new, have to stop worrying that if they don't bow to sources' demands, someone else will.

"We give up and let people go on background too easily," says Politico's Roger Simon. "Why do we give it up? Even though there are fewer mainstream news outlets, the competition has increased. If you don't get it, someone else is going to get it, and it's going to happen quickly."

Perhaps that's OK if it means we preserve journalistic principles, standards that protect our credibility and better serve the public. Perhaps that's OK if we restore the equilibrium between reporters and the people they cover.

"They call us filters," Simon says, referring to politicians and government officials. "We call us honest brokers on behalf of the American people."