How Campaign Strategists Turned Reporters Into Brain-Picking Zombies

In the if-you-like-sausage category, the New York TimesJeremy Peters has a piece today (7/16/12)  about a new trend in journalism: Political sources demanding–and receiving–final control over what they are quoted as saying in news stories.

Quote approval is standard practice for the Obama campaign, used by many top strategists and almost all midlevel aides in Chicago and at the White House–almost anyone other than spokesmen who are paid to be quoted. (And sometimes it applies even to them.) It is also commonplace throughout Washington and on the campaign trail…. Romney advisers almost always require that reporters ask them for the green light on anything from a conversation that they would like to include in an article.

As Peters notes, this means that journalists are giving their sources “final editing power over any published quotations.” He doesn’t spell out the implication, which is that journalists are thereby serving as PR agents, packaging the messages of political professionals at their direction rather than independently reporting the news.

Political strategists

The Times published these photos of political strategists who are allowed to edit their own quotes.

Peters gives his explanation of why journalists would allow such a thing: “Most reporters, desperate to pick the brains of the president’s top strategists, grudgingly agree.” It makes reporters sound like zombies: “Must…pick…brains!”

In reality, political strategists can generally only give you an explanation of their political strategies, and those explanations are usually themselves political strategies. At best, they’re going to help you write the most useless genre of election coverage, the inside-baseball campaign strategy report, which are chiefly of interest to readers who happen to be political strategists. More likely, you’re going to get spun.

Responsible journalists shouldn’t have to be told that it’s wrong to allow your sources to edit their quotes, but apparently the sort of journalists who work for national news outlets do need to be told that. In fact, they need to be told that by their editors, so that when their sources propose such a deal, they can say–sorry, we’re not allowed to do that.

At which point, the political strategists can respond in one of two ways: Maybe they’ll realize that they need the press more than the press needs them, and they’ll allow journalists to do their jobs without interference.

Or maybe they’ll refuse to do interviews altogether, and campaign correspondents will be forced to do stories on the candidates’ policy proposals and how they might impact people’s lives.

Let’s hope they go for Door No. 2.


About Jim Naureckas

Extra! Magazine Editor Since 1990, Jim Naureckas has been the editor of Extra!, FAIR's monthly journal of media criticism. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the newspaper In These Times, where he covered the Iran-Contra scandal, and was managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, a newsletter on Latin America. Jim was born in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1964, and graduated from Stanford University in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in political science. Since 1997 he has been married to Janine Jackson, FAIR's program director. You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JNaureckas.