We don’t let politicians edit their quotes

karen.peterson@thenewstribune.comJuly 29, 2012 

Sometimes the lengths to which a reporter goes to get a quote make the quote worth nothing at all.

Two weeks ago, New York Times reporter Jeremy W. Peters wrote a story about a new trend in presidential campaign coverage – pre-publication quote approval. The practice has become “the default position” on the campaign trail and throughout Washington, D.C., Peters said, for reporters at his publication, The Washington Post and others.

The Times’ story may have gone unnoticed by the general public, but it is causing a stir in journalism circles.

Here’s how Peters described the quote-approval process:

“The quotations come back redacted, stripped of colorful metaphors, colloquial language and anything even mildly provocative.

“They are sent by email 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.”

The Romney campaign is practicing a similar veto process, Peters said.

No one can blame the campaign staffers. Candidates can say something in a rare moment of candor that veers off-script. It’s in their best interest to sanitize the quotes. But journalists should know better than to let the politicians control their stories. The fruits of those deals are no longer journalism, they’re spin.

TNT political reporters report no such pressure for quote approvals from local campaigns. We would say no if they tried. Our only similar experience has been with Pierce County Assessor-Treasurer Dale Washam. Years ago, Washam stopped responding to our requests for interviews over the phone or in person. He demanded we submit our questions in writing and would respond only in writing.

We decided not to grant him any special favors we don’t offer to other office holders. We request live interviews so a reporter can get a candid response, hear the tone of an official’s voice and offer follow-up questions. Washam routinely refuses or ignores those requests, and we say so in our stories.

One exception was in our story last week introducing candidates in the upcoming assessor-treasurer race. To provide the most information possible for voters, we granted Washam a back-and-forth via email. In fairness to the other four candidates who agreed to interviews, we told readers in the story that Washam refused to do so.

The TNT, on occasion, invites the subject of a complex story to come to our office and read it in advance. The goal in those instances is accuracy. We ask the subject to point out anything in the story they find inaccurate. Sometimes that leads to further reporting or corrections to what we’ve written, but the subject doesn’t decide what we publish. We do.

In the days after Peters’ story ran, the chief of McClatchy’s Washington, D.C., bureau was one of the first to speak out against quote approvals. The News Tribune’s Washington correspondent Rob Hotakainen works in that bureau.

“To be clear,” Jim Asher wrote in a memo to his staff, “it is the bureau’s policy that we do not alter accurate quotes from any source.

“While it puts us at a disadvantage, we should argue strenuously for on-the-record interviews with government officials.

“When they absolutely refuse, we have only two options. First, halt the interview and attempt to find the information elsewhere. In those cases, our stories should say the official declined comment. Second, we can go ahead with the interview with the straightforward response that whatever ultimately is used will be published without change in tone, emphasis or exact language.”

The Associated Press, Bloomberg and the National Journal also denounced the practice. The Post and Times reportedly are reviewing their policies.

Asher posted his memo on the McClatchy bureau’s website.

“Then something wonderful happened,” he wrote. “As the Internet lit up, we got hundreds of comments on our website, on the sites that republished my memo and on Twitter. In all but a tiny handful of cases, people applauded McClatchy’s stand, remarking that it was a refreshing commitment of accuracy and independence.

“I couldn’t agree more.”

Twitter: @TNTkpeterson

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