By Bill Boyarsky
When I was a daily news reporter, politicians, campaign managers, public officials and others would occasionally ask me whether they could review their quotes or even read my story before publication.
I refused with two exceptions. One was if I was writing about a complicated subject beyond my knowledge, such as pollution or medicine. Then, I would read back only the portion of the story dealing with the scientific issue. The second was if I was using handwritten notes and had not recorded the speech or interview. If something was unclear to me, I would call back for clarification. That seemed fair.
Doing more would amount to pre-publication censorship. So I was surprised to read Jeremy Peters’ story in The New York Times on Monday, which said that reporters from some of the nation’s biggest media organizations regularly agree to such censorship.
He revealed how politicians and their advisers “are routinely demanding that reporters allow them final editing power over any published quotations.” Such approval is now routine in the White House and President Barack Obama’s campaign headquarters in Chicago. Those interviewing Gov. Mitt Romney’s five sons must submit their quotes to the press office for approval. “And,” Peters wrote, “Romney advisors 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.”
He said organizations such as The New York Times, Bloomberg, The Washington Post, Vanity Fair and Reuters have agreed to these restrictions.
Submitting to such censorship is another sign of how the Internet and cable TV news have changed the business of reporting on politics, as well as other areas such as sports and business.
There is a great hunger for trivial news and the reporters must feed it. In political campaigns, the reporters compete intensely for stories with so-called inside information about tactics. What’s Obama going to say in Ohio? Is he going to apologize to Romney? When and where is Romney going to announce his vice presidential choice? Who’s up in the campaign hierarchy and who’s down?
In answering such questions, the campaign staff is more than likely to lie, obfuscate or use language that is bland and uninformative. And if the staff member is to be quoted, apparently, censorship is imposed.
When I was in the political campaign coverage business, I listened to such people patiently. I knew the campaign people were spinning me. Although I had good relations with most of them, I knew they weren’t sharing for the sake of friendship, but because I worked for the Los Angeles Times. I’d take what they told me as the beginning of reporting on a story. I’d need more information and on-the-record interviews before I wrote anything. If they wanted to talk off the record, that was OK with me. But my colleagues and I didn’t like using anonymous quotes, nor were our editors happy if we did so.
And when we quoted people, we certainly didn’t run their quotes by them for pre-publication approval or revision.
I know things have changed. I could see that when I returned to the campaign trail for Truthdig in 2008 after a dozen years away. The reporters were under more pressure, having to produce daily stories as well as filing for websites. Since then, the need to provide material for Twitter has added to their work, as has the intensified competition to be first on the Web. News—or non-news—flashes through websites and cable networks minute by minute. If a reporter is first with a quote from an assistant campaign director—no matter how meaningless—the rest of the pack must match it. Bosses count the number of hits attained by reporters and stories.
This atmosphere has given the campaigns great power to reward and punish reporters. Presumably a journalist who refuses to submit to censorship will be deprived of even the crumbs doled out by the campaign crew. Reporters, by The New York Times account, have become prisoners of their sources.
Dean Baquet, The New York Times managing editor and one of my bosses when he was at the Los Angeles Times, told reporter Peters that “We don’t like the practice. We encourage our reporters to push back. Unfortunately, the practice is becoming increasingly common and maybe we should push back harder.”
Oddly, reporters seem to have forgotten there are plenty of sources of information. Policy websites, expert opinions and sophisticated statistical analyses abound on the Internet. As for interviews, there are many knowledgeable people in any given area who don’t mind being quoted.
When it comes to censorship by some political hack, all a reporter has to do is just say no.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks with reporters.