“If a public official wants to use NJ as a platform for his/her point of view, the price of admission is a quote that is on-record, unedited and unadulterated.” -- National Journal memo quoted in New York Times
Journalism is in the midst of massive change and tough times... but...
We're now learning that the quotes we see in the New York Times, and probably everywhere else, have been "approved" by some political flak in the politician's entourage.
Thank god a few outlets like the National Journal are saying, 'no thanks.'
Of course politicians and corporate presidents want to control how they are quoted. But, in the past, at least at the lower levels, they were told such a thing as controlling quotes by editing them on publication was against editorial policy. As reporters, we usually pushed this back on our editors. "I just can't do that," I've said many times, "because if I do, my editor will fire me."
Apparently, it doesn't work that way at the higher levels.
Now, allow me to make an important distinction here. The word 'approval' is critical. When we were confronted by a source who demanded control of quotes in exchange for interviews, we usually had the option of offering to 'read' the quotes in the story back to the source before we published. 'Read' is a very long distance from 'approve'. In fact, those policies -- though not universal -- often allowed the reporter to get even more juicy information and also clarify what she had in the first place. We just treated it like a good second interview.
Granting approval to a source is completely different.
This is all about competition, which is generally a good thing. What has happened here, however, is that politicians have figured out how to play one weak willed news organization, one lazy reporter, against another. This has long been a problem with the ubiquitous beat system at news organizations. Your editor says, "Lofflin, stand up to 'em. Do what's right and if they shut you out, we'll give you another beat."
That, of course, is a rotten deal. I have to learn a new beat. I may have spent a decade learning this one. And learning a beat is tough. It not only means learning stuff, it means cultivating sources, and cultivating sources is roughly the equivalent of growing tomatoes in this wretched heat. And, especially if your beat is a plum, you will be violently adverse to such a change. If your beat happens to be the White House, well, there are no comparable beats to compensate you for standing your ground.
You learn to play ball. You play ball as little as possible, work your charm, soften the effect of bad news with plenty of push back from the sources you have to hurt, give a few nasty findings -- the small ones -- street paroles. Ultimately, the news is tainted by the beat system combined with the limits of personal integrity.
But, giving final approval of quotes to sources in exchange for access takes 'tainted' up a level. Kind of the way an Atlas rocket takes a capsule up a level.
It's time for principles to dominate. Put another way, it's time for the big national news outfits to grow a pair. If the majors stood together against this silliness, it would stop. If the editors of the majors simply made approval of quotes a major offense, it would stop. Because, in the end, the politicians and the corporations need the majors as much, or more, than the majors need them.
And, herein, lies another solution. What we really need today are reporters who file stories based on depth of research rather than access to politicians. We need depth journalism, not 140-character journalism. And, at the economic heart of this -- because everything does come down to money, thank you Cindy Lauper -- is a simple reality. The people who pay for news aren't after those gotcha quotes. They buy substance. In fact, in the Internet age, substance may be the only thing they will actually buy.
They can get all the 140-character quotes they want from the infernal crawl under the news talker or from Google headlines. They don't need a news organization for that.
Especially, they don't need a news organization whose quotes are no more than political public relations. The age of single source, catchy quote journalism is over. The majors just don't know it yet.