After that first step it’s pretty much all downhill the rest of the way

It seems I could not have been any more wrong about change being slow: here are more positive developments resulting from last week’s “quote approval” story from the New York Times (thanks to Jim Romenesko for the tips this morning).

After the Associated Press stood up for itself, and on the heels of McClatchy and the National Journal announcing they would not permit their reporters to give interview subjects the right to approve direct quotations for publication, the editor of the American Journalism Review has stepped up to say what most good journalists have been thinking: everyone must agree to just say no.  The sure way to stop government and campaign officials from, in essence, writing the stories about themselves that you and I read is for journalists to stop agreeing to this “pernicious practice.”

The editors at Bloomberg have made it as clear as can be—it’s one thing to negotiate to move an off-the-record quote on the record, but

What isn’t fine is sending quotes to the source or a press office for their revision or rewriting. In such a case, you would no longer know who is actually uttering/writing the words, and it is no longer a negotiation but a surrender of editorial control.

OK then, any other journalists out there still good with surrendering their editorial control?  Let’s see a show of hands…

A journey of a thousand miles begins with…

“Change is sure slow” I wrote last week; I was wrong, and couldn’t be more pleased about it.

I wrote that in a post based on a New York Times story about the growing practice of government and campaign officials demanding pre-publication approval of any direct quotes attributed to them in published news stories.  The big news media outlets that sheepishly admitted to giving “quote approval” to the subjects of their stories reacted as though they were helpless infants: if they refused they would lose access to the sources and not have the story at all…there was nothing they could do.

Nothing, except stand up to the bullies.  And prove the value of reporting a story, of shining the light of publicity on a corrupt practice.

The day after the Times story ran the Associated Press raised its hand to say it did not permit quote approval.  Soon after that Dan Rather and others weighed in; today it’s McClatchy and the National Journal stepping up to reclaim some of journalism’s tarnished heritage.  I feel confident this growing cascade of recognition of who journalists really work for isn’t going to dry up with the testimony of these disciples.  (Well done, Jeremy Peters and the Times.)

The point was true last week and remains true today: “No news publication can cede the responsibility to write its own story as its writers and editors see fit; to give up that authority to the people who are the subjects of the story is to erase any reason for you or me to believe anything they print.”  If more of them are coming around to the point of view that there is something they can do, that they can stand up to the bully, it’s just sad that they had to be embarrassed into doing the right thing.

Hey mister—look over here!

Recently I stumbled on a relatively new Website that grabbed my attention by being different.  It’s called Upworthy, and it bills itself as a social media site with a mission “to help people find important content that is as fun to share as a FAIL video of some idiot surfing off his roof.”  That’s something worth checking out.

I have been for a week now, and decided to pass it along to you and recommend you do the same.  It’s continually updated, although I can’t tell yet if there’s a real schedule for updates or not, and has enticed me with fun and interesting images and clever text it hopes I will click.  It has a sense of humor and a progressive/liberal political point of view, at least what I’ve seen so far does…but then, it does seem to be the work of young people (and you know how they can be!).  They’re tilting at the windmill of an Internet composed of the following:


I agree with their premise that “things that matter in the world don’t have to be boring and guilt-inducing,” and give them credit for trying to prove the point.  Give Upworthy a look yourself.

The powers that be control the message—even more than you know

Here is another depressing argument that the reality you and I inhabit, and feel comfortable most days saying we have some control over, has been sanitized for our protection.

The New York Times reports that “quote approval” is a common practice with the Obama and Romney campaigns, but also among most of the government bureaucracy.  Campaign or government officials agree to an interview with the proviso that they get pre-publication approval as to “what statements can be quoted and attributed by name.”

The chutzpah is galling, yes?  But here’s the worst part: the reporters agree to the condition!

It’s nothing new for politicians to go to extraordinary lengths to manage the impressions we get of them, and that’s not all bad: I’d rather have leaders who take time to consider what they’re doing and how their actions will be perceived than leaders who don’t take a moment to think about alternative courses of action and their potential outcomes.  And remember, there is no requirement anywhere that any politician or candidate for office need ever consent to be interviewed; that’s just the way, historically, that they have communicated with the people who put them in power.  They’re free to ask for any condition at all in return for an interview.

But, the role of the journalist in our system is to report—to dig, to uncover, to reason, to relate, to provide context—so the rest of us can hold leaders to account for the actions that they do take.  It’s not the job of the journalist to help the leaders fabricate a version of reality that puts them in a more positive light, and letting them clean up their quotes is doing just that.  (This system doesn’t work for an interview that is broadcast live on television or radio or the Web…yea, TV and radio.)

The politicians themselves betray a little self-consciousness on the issue—“The Obama campaign declined to make Mr. Plouffe or Mr. Messina available to explain their media practices. ‘We are not putting anyone on the record for this story,’ said Katie Hogan, an Obama spokeswoman, without a hint of irony.”—and the Times story says reporters “grudgingly agree” to this restriction.

I would argue that they should not agree at all.  Giving in to the bully is not the way to get him to stop stealing your lunch money.

Politicians should have the fortitude to stand by whatever they say when they agree to an on-the-record interview, whether it’s broadcast on television or reported in a printed publication, and I’m disappointed to learn about some of those who demand the final rewrite as if they were negotiating a movie deal.  But journalists mustuphold a higher standard, and that means no more cooperating with the cover-up.  Today’s story in the Times is a good start, because now the rest of us have a better idea of what’s going on.  Shining a light on this stupid practice is the first step toward bringing it to an end.

I’d love to see a story that informed me “candidate so-and-so would only agree to an interview if The Daily Disappointment gave him authority to decide which quotes would be included in the story.”  No news publication can cede the responsibility to write its own story as its writers and editors see fit; to give up that authority to the people who are the subjects of the story is to erase any reason for you or me to believe anything they print.

The author and critic Louis Kronenberger wrote that “The trouble with us in America isn’t that the poetry of life has been turned to prose, but that it has been turned to advertising copy.”  He wrote that in 1954…change is sure slow.

→UPDATE 7/17:  Turns out that not all the reporters give “quote approval”–congratulations, Associated Press!

First things first–let’s start with the facts

It is said that there are two things you do not want to see being made: sausage, and legislation.  I’m of the opinion that a third thing on that list should be the news—you don’t want to see how a news story comes into being.  But Tom Goldstein, the publisher of, wants you to see what happened behind the scenes last month in the national reporting of the Supreme Court’s decision on the Affordable Care Act.  In his in-depth post-mortem Goldstein (who has a dog in this fight, to be sure) and his staff pieced together what happened at CNN, Fox News Channel, the White House, and in the nine minutes between when the court’s decision was handed down and when the error-filled reporting of the decision ended, including how

  • hackers tried to bring down SCOTUSblog
  • the court’s own website failed due to the heavy traffic, so no one outside the court building could access the decision
  • a lack of thoroughness led CNN and Fox to run with incorrect interpretations of the opinion, and
  • people who’d seen those incorrect TV reports refused to believe they were incorrect when confronted with the truth

CNN and Fox News have come in for a lot of deserved criticism for initially reporting the story incorrectly.  Yes, I know they were trying to get it first but so was everyone else, and they waited long enough to understand what the court had ruled before reporting it.  In fact, Bloomberg was first—less than one minute after the chief justice began announcing the decision from the bench—and they got it right!

From what I learned in this piece, I find it disturbing just how much brain power was brought to bear by these two networks that day and still they got it wrong.  Disturbing, but not surprising.  Yes, people make mistakes; but people who care more for flash than for accuracy—for generating heat rather than light—are more likely to make careless mistakes.  Avoiding careless mistakes is—or should be—of paramount importance in this business.

But both CNN and Fox exposed themselves to potential failure by

(a) treating the decision as a breathless “breaking news” event, despite the fact that everyone knew when the opinion was going to be released (and the mandate won’t take effect until 2014), while at the same time

(b) not putting sufficiently sound procedures in place to deal with the potential complications, and

(c) not placing more faith in the consensus view of the wire reports.

To put it another way: read the damn opinion before presuming to tell me what it says.  That shouldn’t be too much to ask, whether reporting a Supreme Court decision or a school board meeting or a fender bender.  Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel suggest that in order “to provide people with the information they need to be free and self-governing,” which is the purpose of journalism, the journalist’s first obligation is to the truth.  Sometimes that can take more than just a few minutes to learn, but we don’t mind waiting.

Other opinions–