But it’s important, too, to make the barriers to information and methods for message control a story in their own right. That’s valuable because the press has an institutional investment in openness—but also because writing those stories will shine a light on how the media responds, which makes the sausage-making of reporting more transparent to readers and can prompt necessary discussions within media institutions about how to do better.
This is what Peters’s story on “quote approval” has done, prompting statements banning the policy from National Journal and McClatchy’s D.C. bureau, plus some new instruction from the top brass at The Washington Post. Bloomberg, The Associated Press, and other outlets also condemned the practice. More broadly, the coverage of quote approval has highlighted a sense that the journalist-politician power balance has gotten out of whack, with even Ari Fleischer—yes, that Ari Fleischer—worrying that the practice “turns the relationship between a source and a reporter entirely over to the source.” It remains to be seen what will happen, but the attention to a dynamic gone awry creates the possibility of change for the better.
That’s why, even if pieces like Funk’s or Washburn’s—or this Observer story about pointless redactions in DNC-related emails sent by city employees—are sometimes written out of peevishness or frustration, it’s good that they’re written. When the default assumption becomes that information will be withheld, journalism doesn’t just get more difficult—it becomes more susceptible to spin, score-settling, and hidden motivations, as the rules get bent. One way to push back at that struggle for power is to report on the tug of war clearly and publicly, prompting open debate among journalists and the public.