The White House press corps quote game

The White House press corps quote game

From Scott Rosenberg of Salon: Readers of the letters page on Jim Romenesko’s media news blog were treated this week to a remarkable admission about how the White House news operation cooks quotes — and how the press plays along. Washington Post economics correspondent Jonathan Weisman told the sorry tale, in detail that makes any conscientious reporter cringe. Weisman wanted to interview a particular administration economist; the White House press office insisted not only that the interview be considered off the record, but also that all quotes from the interview be run by the press office before publication. (I’m finding this confusing already since I’ve always understood “off the record” to mean no quotes at all — “Not for attribution” is when you’re okay with being quoted but don’t want your names on the quote.)

Weisman’s source actually said, “This is probably the most academic proposal ever to come out of an administration,” but upon reviewing his quote, the press office said, the official wanted it to read, instead, “This is probably the purest, most far reaching economic proposal ever to come out of an administration.” Gee, I wonder why?

Weisman assented to this whole process but later had second thoughts: “The notion that reporters are routinely submitting quotations for approval, and allowing those quotes to be manipulated to get that approval, strikes me as a step beyond business as usual.”

Uh, yeah. It’s more than a step beyond business as usual. It’s insane, outrageous, unconscionable. This is Journalism 101; it’s basic. You don’t let people review their quotes after they talk to you because they always have second thoughts about the most revealing things that they say. In the situation Weisman describes, of course, we don’t even know whether it was the original speaker who had second thoughts, or whether the quote-doctoring was being stage-managed by a press office enforcing a party line.

I empathize with the reporter whose tough assignment is to write stories about any White House — particularly one, like Bush’s, that is determined to close ranks and let no truth trickle out to the press. If your job is to get quotes from the White House and the White House says you don’t get quotes unless you play by our rules, maybe you have no choice.

What you do have a choice about is what you reveal about the process by which you got your quotes. And so, while I’m grateful that Weisman chose to blow the whistle via his letter to Romenesko, the place he should have done this was in his story. Just as a good newspaper will alert its readers to the fact that a report from the front has been reviewed by military censors, a quote from the White House that the White House got to doctor should come with, in essence, a consumer warning.

What I’d really love to know, now that Weisman has opened the door on this abuse a crack, is just how widespread it is. Weisman says it’s “fairly standard.” If newspaper editors told their reporters to tell readers every time a quote had been pre-reviewed by the White House, how frequently would the columns of the Post, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the other pillars of our journalistic establishment have to stop to note such a betrayal of their own ethics? And how soon would the insidious practice end?

[Source: Scott Rosenberg’s Links & Comment]