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!

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This entry was posted in American Values, Elections, Intellectual Dishonesty, Media Criticism, Politics, Woeful Journalism and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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