Inept stenographers

Journalists' excuses for their bad behavior -- it's necessary to get quotes -- are both fictitious and irrelevant

Published July 17, 2012 11:36AM (EDT)

      (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)
(Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

(updated below)

A common criticism of establishment journalists entails comparing them to stenographers, on the ground that most of them do little more than mindlessly write down and uncritically repeat what government officials say. But stenography is a noble and important profession: they're the court-licensed officers who, with astonishing speed and accuracy, transcribe the statements of all witnesses, lawyers and judges in judicial proceedings. If establishment journalists were to replicate actual stenography, it would be an improvement on most of the work they produce.

A confession in yesterday's New York Times reveals that even the stenography produced by our nation's most esteemed media outlets is anything but accurate: rather, it's contrived and distorted by the very people whom these media outlets purport to cover adversarially. The article describes how many American media outlets, including the NYT, give veto power to the Obama campaign (and, less so, to the Romney campaign), as well as political offices generally, over the quotes of its officials that are allowed to be published:

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. . . .

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.

The Romney campaign insists that journalists interviewing any of Mitt Romney’s five sons agree to use only quotations that are approved by the press office. And 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.

From Capitol Hill to the Treasury Department, interviews granted only with quote approval have become the default position.

I genuinely do not understand how any self-respecting journalist could even consider agreeing to this. But they do, so much so that it is now widespread custom. I don't primarily blame the Obama campaign or other politicians for this: it's natural that they would want to manipulate the American media as much as possible for their own interests and use every instrument, no matter how journalistically unethical, to achieve that. But its extreme use now is reflective of the general fixation which the Obama administration has on secrecy and controlling the flow of information, as the NYT notes:

Reporters who have covered the Obama presidency say the quote-approval process fits a pattern by this White House of finding new ways to limit its exposure in the news media. . . . Under President Obama, the insistence on blanket anonymity has grown to new levels.

The White House’s latest innovation is a variation of the background briefing called the “deep-background briefing,” which it holds for groups of reporters, sometimes several dozen at a time. Reporters may paraphrase what senior administration officials say, but they are forbidden to put anything in quotation marks or identify the speakers.

The White House held such a briefing after the Supreme Court’s health care ruling last month with officials including Mr. Plouffe, Mr. Carney and Dan Pfeiffer, the communications director. But when reporters asked to quote part of the conversation, even anonymously, they were told no. Even the spokesmen were off limits.

Esquire's Charles Pierce, who has justifiably become a beloved writer among Democratic Party commentators for his scathing, incisive attacks on the American Right (his equally scathing, incisive attacks on the Obama administration are typically ignored by them), yesterday noted the revelations that the FDA spied on the digital communications of its whistleblowing scientists and wrote:

Outside of its embracing of some — but not all, god knows — of the Bush gang's more outre interpretations of the president's national-security powers, the one thing that could cause me to vote this fall for Dr. Jill Stein, my old fellow fencing parent, is the Obama administration's apparent mania for tracing down leaks, and the administration's increasingly clumsy attempts to explain why they're engaging in formalized Egil Krogh-isms when they get caught out. There is simply no excuse for the continuing treatment of Bradley Manning. Their attitude toward the reporter-source relationship in certain areas is downright alarming. . . . Science dies without the free flow of information. The same can be said of democracy.

It is beyond dispute that President Obama and his aides have an extreme, even unprecedented obsession with concealing embarrassing information, controlling the flow of information, and punishing anyone who stands in the way. But, at least theoretically speaking, it is the job of journalists to impede that effort, not to serve and enable it. Agreeing to grant veto power over quotes -- whereby officials can literally alter what they actually said, and then have newspapers report the doctored, inaccurate quotes -- is about as journalistically subservient and reckless as it gets. It's not merely stenography: it's inept stenography. No actual, ethical stenographer would ever agree to that.

The excuse given by journalists for why they agree to this is the same one they haul out every time they try to justify their equally subservient practice of allowing political officials to hide behind a protective wall of anonymity. We have no real choice, they claim, because if we don't agree to their demands, then they won't speak to us at all, and it's better to have anonymous/doctored quotes from them than none at all (the NYT yesterday: reporters agree to quote-approval powers because they are "desperate to pick the brains of the president’s top strategists"; "It is a double-edged sword for journalists, who are getting the on-the-record quotes they have long asked for, but losing much of the spontaneity and authenticity in their interviews").

The classic expression of this excuse is found in this article by Nieman Watchdog's John Hanrahan, which criticized The New York Times' Scott Shane for granting anonymity to an Obama official to disgustingly smear the Bureau of Investigative Journalism as Al Qaeda sympathizers for the crime of documenting that civilian drone deaths are much higher than Obama officials claim (I criticized Shane's anonymity granting when the article was first published). Here is Shane's excuse for why he decided to grant anonymity to a high-level government official for no purpose other than to smear investigative reporters:

Shane defended the use of the anonymous quotes in the two articles, saying that he and his editors agreed that the quotes were needed to give "some voice from the other side" -- that is, the government -- in articles reporting allegations of civilian deaths. Until the drone-strike program is made overt and government officials can talk more freely about it, Shane said, "journalists often have a choice of quoting anonymous officials or writing stories about accusations of bad strikes and innocent deaths and including no response at all. I feel it's important to include some voice from the other side, and my editors have agreed. In addition, it seems to me important to citizens to know what the government says, even if some citizens find the statements unpersuasive or worse."

[In response, Hanrahan notes: "The problem, though, with the U.S. government as the anonymous 'voice from the other side,' is that the real unrepresented 'voice from the other side' in the mainstream news media is that of the civilian victims. Their voices and names seldom appear in the mainstream media."]

This excuse constantly given by journalists -- we have to agree to our government source's demands or else they won't talk to us -- is patently fictitious and, independently, irrelevant. In response to the NYT story yesterday, numerous commentators condemned this practice. Journalism Professor Christopher Daly denounced these quote-approval agreements as "pernicious" censorship and argues that "the journalists should never have agreed to it." Both Daly and Jeff Jarvis argue that it should never be done, but if it is, at the very least it must be clearly disclosed in each article. The Guardian's Europe editor, Ian Traynor, notes that this is standard practice in Germany and warns that it becomes "infectious," whereby all political officials, high- and mid-level alike, reflexively demand veto power over all quotes. Mother Jones' Kevin Drum mocked the journalists' defense this way: "If they refuse, they won't have anything to write about? These kinds of campaign stories almost never produce anything of real interest. If reporters were banned from doing them, virtually nothing would be lost. In fact, the quality of campaign reporting might very well go up."

I agree with all of that, but want to make one other point that has long bothered me about this excuse. It is simply absurd to claim that Obama officials will refuse to speak to, say, The New York Times if its reporters do not agree to these demands. Is the Obama campaign really willing to have one story after the next written about the presidential campaign by The Paper of Record without any input from it, without its side, its messaging, being included? I seriously doubt that. The same is true of the Obama White House.

When Obama officials provide quotes to the NYT about a political controversy, they're not doing a favor for the newspaper. They're doing it because it's in their interests to have the NYT story shaped by what they say. Does anyone believe that if the NYT refuses to give Obama officials veto power over their quotes -- or if they refuse to let Obama officials slime and attack people while hiding behind anonymity -- that Obama officials will simply cease speaking to the NYT and allow the paper to drive the news cycle without their input? Please.

Independently, if government officials demand unreasonable concessions as a condition for speaking to reporters -- concessions that radically skew the practice and purpose of journalism -- then of course it is far better for media outlets to refuse those demands and publish stories without quotes from these officials. We would be far better off without anonymous quotes from government officials repeating administration spin or sliming political opponents, and we would also be far better off without doctored quotes based on their veto power over what can be published -- even if the price is that we do without their official statements.

In sum, I simply do not believe that these political officials would stop talking to influential media outlets if their obnoxious demands were rejected. I believe journalists agree to this because that's how they curry favor with government officials who can feed them scoops, and because agreeing to their demands is easier than doing the work of pressuring them to abandon these demands or getting the information some other way. But even if these sources really would refuse to speak to them if their demands were not be met, that would be far preferable to agreeing to these deeply corrupting practices. As New York's Joe Coscarelli wrote yesterday: "Embracing the adversarial nature of the reporter-subject relationship makes everyone's job harder, but it's the reader who wins. And isn't that the idea?"

Yes, that's the idea in theory, but not in reality. Ultimately, this now-common quote-approval sham vividly illustrates the actual relationship between the media class and the politicians on whom they report. Quote approval is something that publicists and lawyers give to their clients (I promise not to attribute anything to you publicly without your advance consent); in other words, it's reflective of a relationship between those in a service profession and those who are served. And that explains why establishment journalists provide this service to these political officials: because they serve them as spokespeople, not report on them adversarially.

A very similar controversy arose in 2007 when alleged Journalistic Tough Guy Tim Russert, then Washington Bureau Chief of NBC News, testified at the trial of Lewis Libby and admitted that he treats all conversations with senior government officials as presumptively confidential, even in the absence of an off-the-record agreement. Said Russert, under oath: "when I talk to senior government officials on the phone, it's my own policy our conversations are confidential. If I want to use anything from that conversation, then I will ask permission." About that, Dan Froomkin, then at The Washington Post, wrote:

That's not reporting, that's enabling.Click here!

That's how you treat your friends when you're having an innocent chat, not the people you're supposed to be holding accountable.

Many things are "on trial" at the E. Barrett Prettyman federal courthouse right now. . . . the behavior of elite members of Washington's press corps -- sometimes appearing more interested in protecting themselves and their cozy "sources" than in informing the public -- is also being exposed for all the world to see.

It was embarrassing enough when establishment journalists were willingly serving as mindless stenographers for the nation's most powerful political officials (Stephen Colbert, addressing the White House press corps: "Here's how it works. The President makes decisions. He's the decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Just put 'em through a spell check and go home"). Now they're not even doing that: they're allowing the political officials to change the quotes of what they actually said before the quotes are published, all without any disclosure that this is being done. Calling them "stenographers" is truly an insult to actual stenographers, who would never agree to doctor quotes in order to please those on whom they're reporting.

* * * * *

Speaking of rank propaganda, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism today documents the sloppy, inaccurate, and government-mimicking claims of Peter Bergen of CNN and the New America Foundation about civilian drone deaths.


UPDATE: In response to my questions on Twitter, and to my request that every journalist say whether they've ever agreed to such an arrangement with government sources, numerous reporters have made clear that they have never granted quote approval, and some said they never would. ABC News' Terry Moran, in response to my asking who would possibly agree to such a thing, wrote: "NEVER." Reuters' Anthony De Rosa said: "I don't speak for anyone but myself but you're not getting quote approval from me." Jamil Smith, an MSNBC segment producer, wrote: "Not once, and won't ever." Slate's Dave Weigel declared: "Never have." An informal poll of journalists by Poynter found that 61% never agree to such terms; numerous other working journalists responded to me on Twitter by saying they never have.

Poynter also includes these quotes: "There’s a standard for whether or not a quote should appear in a news piece: whether or not the subject actually said it" (Time's James Poniewozik);"When journalists give sources the opportunity to fix up what they’ve said, we become complicit in their spin" (Jeff Jarvis in The Guardian).

So it's clearly possible to cover politics as a journalist without resorting to such corrupting, subservient practices. Meanwhile, in response to the controversy, The New York Times now says it is reviewing whether they should change their policy to ban this practice. The Associated Press already bars the practice and said today: "We have declined interviews that have come with this contingency." It's fairly hard for those who do this to claim that it's necessary given how many journalists manage to report quite well without ever doing it.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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