‘Quote Approval’ Turns Press From Watchdog To Lapdog

Gene Policinski

By Gene Policinski
Senior Vice President/Executive Director, First Amendment Center

Big-time news outlets are reported to have caved into pressure both from the White House and the Mitt Romney campaign, agreeing to get approval of quotes from the candidates — and sometimes even the spokesmen for the candidates – before publishing interview articles.

The New York Times reported a few days ago on the practice, even noting that it was one of the news outlets participating in the process of “quote approval.”

“It was difficult to find a news outlet that had not agreed to [it], albeit reluctantly,” the Times article by Jeremy W. Peters said. “Organizations like Bloomberg, The Washington Post, Vanity Fair, Reuters and The New York Times have all consented to interviews under such terms.”

Dean Baquet, New York Times managing editor for news, was quoted as saying, “We encourage our reporters to push back. Unfortunately this practice is becoming increasingly common, and maybe we have to push back harder.”

The Times reported July 23 that the National Journal had decided to ban the practice. The Associated Press does not allow sources to approve quotes.

A good many scholars, year after year, have defended the press against claims of bias or self-serving motives, while stressing that the nation’s Founders provided for freedom of the press despite being confronted regularly with partisan, often brutally insulting newspapers.

Journalists writing as defenders of the nation’s free press have pooh-poohed charges of conspiracies on behalf of or in opposition to political parties and particular candidates, in part because of a proclaimed independence of the news media.

Those standing up for the profession have mocked others who see liberal bias in every newsroom, if only because corporate owners and managers who dominate today’s journalism seem inclined to insist on a nonpolitical approach to news for fear of compromising shrinking profit margins or losing advertisers or readers.

Now comes this report that most campaign reporters this year have agreed to quote review by candidate and officeholder handlers, and to live with the yes-or-no results.

The reason for the system is not even a laudable if misguided desire for accuracy. Rather, it’s a self-serving, hat-in-hand posture of trading independence for access. It’s a complete reversal — no, it’s an abandonment — of the free press’ obligation to report to the public. It’s liberty sold outright in return for an interview that presumably otherwise would be withheld.

Watchdog on government? Lapdog is more like it.

Yes, not being able to talk with a candidate means no “exclusive.” And probably the pressure to get more news than others on the same assignment may well come more from the “suits” back at the office than from the reporter or TV correspondent on the line.

But the technique is a sham that hands over control what we see and hear and know — as far from the role journalists should be performing as can be. One gets an image of reporters as trained pets, willing to sit up on command in hopes of being tossed a morsel of “news” — morsels that in the end are much like today’s dog food: processed. shaped, and as bland as possible so as to be acceptable as widely as possible.

In 1973, author and journalist Timothy Crouse wrote The Boys on the Bus,showing how the traveling political press corps worked, and providing an insider’s peek at “pack journalism.” At least those packs were made up of newshounds. The problem then was that, once it got the scent of a particular story, the pack tended to pursued it to the potential exclusion of other stories. Oh, for those days of pursuit rather than permission.

No one but editors should review a story, or the quotes in it, before publication. Politicians shouldn’t say it if they don’t want it reported. Reporters should work at getting it right when it is said, in part so they don’t later have to correct what they got wrong.

And if politicians don’t like those rules, then they don’t get into the stories. In Washington, if no other place, there’s always a way to get the story even if the principal subject isn’t speaking, even if not as quickly or easily.

Anything else is not news reporting worthy of the term, but rather glorified, homogenized pieces of pap that no matter how well-written or spoken do not even rise to the level of a news release and certainly shouldn’t be called journalism.

On behalf of those who drafted the First Amendment and provided its unique protection for a free press, please DO quote me on that.

Gene Policinski, senior vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center, is a veteran journalist whose career has included work in newspapers, radio, television and online.