The New York Times has spoken: Executive Editor Jill Abramson has issued a new policy that forbids "after-the-fact quote approval" -- except when it's OK. And, she's right on both counts (even if they're on two sides of the issue).
Journalists take justifiable pride in their independence. They don't want anyone telling them what they should report -- not the government, not advertisers, not corporations that employ them and certainly not the people they're reporting on. That makes sense. We want to believe that when a reporter is telling us something, it's because she believes it to be true. Period.
So, when we hear that some reporters allow the people they're interviewing to "approve" direct quotations, it sounds outrageous. We know that politicians and other news subjects are spinning the press all the time. It's hard to get around that. But if in a momentary lapse of candor they say something they'd like to take back, why let them? After all, we don't just quote press releases, so why should we give interview subjects "do-overs" until they get things just the way they want them?
The most recent flap started back in July when the New York Times reported it had become standard practice for the Obama campaign to demand quote approval before agreeing to interviews. There quickly followed condemnations, such as from Dan Rather (saying it turns journalists from "watchdogs" into "lapdogs"). Others, like David Carr of the Times, saw it in a more nuanced light -- sort of like a summer cold; regrettable and to be watched carefully, but sometimes inevitable. Andrew Beaujon of Poynter showed us how there may be some room for asking people to confirm they've said what reporters think they've said because sometimes reporters "mangle" quotes by mistake. And then Michael Lewis told us that, in arranging the extensive access he got to President Obama for his Vanity Fair profile, he agreed he wouldn't use any quotes that the White House didn't OK.
When I ran ABC News, we didn't give our interview subjects the opportunity to see what we'd recorded before we aired it. Now in fairness, it's a lot harder to go back and re-shoot an interview than it is to change a few words in a print story.
It would be easy simply to say journalists shouldn't run quotes by those they've interviewed. Ever. But as in so much of journalism (and life), it's not that simple. I've had various reporters call me over the years to talk about some story they're working on. Often, I'm not directly involved in the story, but they want some more general sense of television news and how it works. I've run a news organization, so I want to help them if I can. But I don't want to be part of the story. So, the reporter and I agree that our conversation will be "on background."
So far, so good. I'll give the reporter my perspective on how things work, the reporter will take it into account, and the chips will fall where they may.
But there have been times (more often than you might think) when the reporter has asked me whether she could put on the record something I've said. And, most often, I've agreed, provided only that the quote is accurate (which it's pretty much always been). I don't ask to clean it up or tone it down. But the reporter wouldn't be free to use the quote at all (or at least to attribute it to me) unless I agreed to change the "background" agreement we'd made.
In cases like these, would the audience really be better off not having the information or having it from a "knowledgeable insider?" Would we all have been better off if Michael Lewis had not had all that access to President Obama and told us what had seen? The goal here is to get as much of the truth out to the public as possible. That's a hard job for any reporter, and it's only getting harder as politicians and corporate leaders and just about everyone else "PR's up," the way perps always "lawyer up" on television dramas.
So, as I say, the New York Times looks like they've gotten it just about right. They've warned everyone to keep it down to a dull roar. Don't agree too readily to give quote approval. But don't rule it out altogether either.
In the end, we're still going to have to rely on the good sense of our reporters to get the story, get it right and tell us as much as they can. If that involves some approving of quotes, then maybe that's OK. You can't legislate good journalism. The ultimate responsibility will remain where it's always been: Those of us in the audience have to judge for ourselves which news sources are using all the tools available to them to help us learn the truth and which are falling down on the job.