It’s a diffuse target, but the campaign press corps writ large earns a dart this week for acquiescing to the scenario that Jeremy Peters describes in his much-discussed New York Times article, headlined “Latest Word on the Trail? I Take It Back”:
On the off chance you haven’t seen it yet, here’s Peters’s lead:
The quotations come back redacted, stripped of colorful metaphors, colloquial language and anything even mildly provocative.
They are sent by e-mail from the Obama headquarters in Chicago to reporters who have interviewed campaign officials under one major condition: the press office has veto power over what statements can be quoted and attributed by name.
Most reporters, desperate to pick the brains of the president’s top strategists, grudgingly agree. After the interviews, they review their notes, check their tape recorders and send in the juiciest sound bites for review.
The verdict from the campaign—an operation that prides itself on staying consistently on script—is often no, Barack Obama does not approve this message.
As Peters’s story makes clear, this isn’t strictly an issue with campaign coverage: similar practices are common in the Obama administration, as traditional background briefings become more encumbered by restrictions. (See Curtis Brainard’s story in the Sept/Oct 2011 CJR for more on that.) Nor is it just an issue with Obama: Peters reports that the Romney campaign routinely demands quote approval, too. But the fact that the practice is widespread makes it more frustrating, not less.
Before we get too high up on our horse: this isn’t the greatest of journalistic sins, and it’s unlikely that any great journalistic pearls are being lost here. With or without quote approval, campaign insiders are generally disciplined pros who know how to push the candidate’s message. (Peters writes that reporters told him the editing never changed the meaning of a quote, and while we have to take their word for it, that seems plausible.) And as the excellent Washington Post reporter Karen Tumulty noted in a Poynter chat, quote approval doesn’t mean that reporters have to use the altered quotes, and it doesn’t mean that reporters can’t find other ways to report what they know. Meanwhile, when the media does get unscripted access to public officials, unenlightening gaffe-oriented coverage is often the result.
But the very pettiness of the changes is part of what makes the practice galling. One way to understand campaign coverage is as a contest over message control: campaigns trying to tell a particular story; news organizations trying to challenge, evaluate, and scrutinize it. Routine quote approval through the press office is basically the institutional expression of the campaigns exerting control—often, it seems, control for its own sake. It’s worth pushing back on those grounds alone.