Monday, July 16, 2012

How the White House censors journalists (And a solution)

Turns out that when you read quotes from White House officials, you're only reading quotes that have been pre-approved for publication by the White House. This is some kind of obnoxious:
It is a double-edged sword for journalists, who are getting the on-the-record quotes they have long asked for, but losing much of the spontaneity and authenticity in their interviews. 
Jim Messina, the Obama campaign manager, can be foul-mouthed. But readers would not know it because he deletes the curse words before approving his quotes. Brevity is not a strong suit of David Plouffe, a senior White House adviser. So he tightens up his sentences before giving them the O.K. 
Stuart Stevens, the senior Romney strategist, is fond of disparaging political opponents by quoting authors like Walt Whitman and referring to historical figures like H. R. Haldeman, Richard Nixon’s chief of staff. But such clever lines later rarely make it past Mr. Stevens. 
Many journalists spoke about the editing only if granted anonymity, an irony that did not escape them. No one said the editing altered the meaning of a quote. The changes were almost always small and seemingly unnecessary, they said.
Now, the story makes clear it's a bipartisan practice. Whatever. It's still bull. And it gives the White House direct control over the content of journalism that appears before the public. That's effectively the power of censorship, even if the processes are essentially informal and don't require the use of an FBI agent to enforce. It's still insidious, and it should be unacceptable in a free society.

But journalists acquiesce because if they don't give White House officials the power to censor their quotes, they don't get quotes at all. And yes, that puts them in a tough place, professionally. So what to do?

The Times' story is a good start, but it's not enough. Every time an official refines a quote before giving permission for it to be used in a story--in every single story that it happens--journalists should state that to their audience. Every single time. Something like:  "I think the president is all kinds of awesome," David Axelrod said, in a quote he pre-approved for publication. 

Would this end this odious practice? Probably not. But it would at least make the process of reporting and gathering a story more transparent to the audience--and the knowledge of how government (or wannabe government) officials operate the levers of power over reporters would be useful for the general public to have. As it stands, I trust Washington-based reporting just a little bit less than I used to.

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