The New York Times had a front-page story today outing a noxious practice it and others allow: letting politicians veto and in some cases rewrite quotes from briefings.
Such “quote approval” is shockingly common in D.C., where hyper-competitive political journos are frequently accused of being stenographers to power.
Journalists already trade disclosure for (presumably candid) access when they allow sources anonymity — “administration official,” “high-ranking staffer.” The public should trust that stuff less, but at least the journalist retains some control. Quote approval and quote laundering gets a named source, at the credibility-sapping price of tranferring editorial control to your subject. Reporters’ defense — the quotes don’t change much — is fairly pathetic.
Which raises the question: Do Minnesota political journalists do this?
Editors or spokesfolk for five Minnesota news organizations — the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Minnesota Public Radio, the Associated Press, Politics in Minnesota and MinnPost — say no.
I’m not yet sure of the Star Tribune: Political editor Pat Lopez declined to answer, referring me to her boss, managing editor Rene Sanchez, who did not return an email or call in a three-hour window this morning. I’ll update if I hear back.
[Update: Sanchez says, “No, we don’t do that and I can’t think of a circumstance in which we would.”]
Politics in Minnesota managing editor Steve Perry, whose staff blankets the state Capitol, says, “We’ve neither used this practice nor taken part in briefings in which it was a condition. Doesn’t seem to have filtered to the state level as far as I can tell.”
Pioneer Press Dennis Lien agrees, adding that no politician he’s covered has made quote approval a condition for attending a briefing.
Associated Press spokesman Paul Colford — whose organization was not listed among the weak-willed in the NYT piece — says, “We don’t permit quote approval. We have declined interviews that have come with this contingency.”
MPR spokeswoman Christina Schmitt: “We don’t allow anyone to retract quotes, edit quotes or review quotes pre-broadcast or pre-publication.”
MinnPost managing editor Roger Buoen, a former Star Tribune editor: “I can’t recall allowing a politician to edit a quote at MinnPost or at the newspapers we’ve worked for. MinnPost doesn’t have a formal policy on this question, although we follow what I understand is the general practice of local news organizations of not allowing that sort of thing.”
Lien says he has read quotes to politicians, in limited, understandable circumstances: “The only times I’ve done anything like that is if I’ve missed a word, either because I didn’t take notes fast enough or write or type clearly enough, and still want to use the quote. Then, I’ve gone back to the speaker and said something along the lines of, ‘I’d like to use the following quote (and repeat what I have), but I can’t make out the missing word or words. Do you recall what it was or they were?’
“But that has been very infrequent. Typically, if I have any question about a specific quote, I simply don’t use it.”
Geographically and influentially, St. Paul is a long way from D.C., and you hope pols don’t get any bright ideas from the NYT story. Even if they do, you hope local media orgs aren’t so weak-willed about “getting beat” that they would agree to it.
(At the very least, as journalism professor Jeff Jarvis notes, reporters making this trade-off have an obligation to tell readers they did.)
Current or former politicians or staff — have you ever tried or succeeded with this manuever locally? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org … but I won’t promise to let you launder your quotes.