Should Government Sources Be Given the Right to Clear or Alter Quotes as an Interview Condition?
And so it looks like a bar is being lowered again. Should government sources be given the right to clear and alter quotes as a CONDITION for being interviewed? Once upon a time an editor would reply to such a suggestion by saying, “Yeah, right: in your dreams!” But that isn’t what is being said all the time now.
To our staff and to our readers:
As you are aware, reporters from The New York Times, Washington Post, Bloomberg and others are agreeing to give government sources the right to clear and alter quotes as a prerequisite to granting an interview.
To be clear, it is the bureau’s policy that we do not alter accurate quotes from any source. And to the fullest extent possible, we do not make deals that we will clear quotes as a condition of interviews.
With the government trying to do more of the public’s business in secret, the demands that interviews be conducted off the record is growing. While it puts us at a disadvantage, we should argue strenuously for on-the-record interviews with government officials.
When they absolutely refuse, we have only two options. First, halt the interview and attempt to find the information elsewhere. In those cases, our stories should say the official declined comment. Second, we can go ahead with the interview with the straightforward response that whatever ultimately is used will be published without change in tone, emphasis or exact language.
These days government is trying mightily to constrain access to public information. Each staffer has had no comments, demands for FOIAs that go unanswered and worse. More recently, our sources have been chilled by threats of leak investigations, and some have endured full blown leak inquiries.
As advocates of the First Amendment, we cannot be intimidated into letting the government control our work. When The New York Times agreed with Bush Administration officials to delay publication of its story of illegal wiretaps of Americans until after the 2004 election, it did the nation a great disservice. Acceding to the Obama administration’s efforts to censor our work to have it more in line with their political spin is another disservice to America.
And judging from the controversy that has ensued from the disclosure of these requests, the people don’t like this either.
If you believe there is a compelling reason for an exception to this policy, please clear it with me.
Washington Bureau Chief
Forget whether there is a Democratic or Republican administration. McClatchy is correct here: this is yet one more step in the journalistic castration of the press — a step that began with the weakening of newspapers due to changes in technology and the recession, and the decision by some politicians to avoid traditionally challenging interviews with newspapers and media outlets and instead try to talk only to ideologically friendly reporters or networks.
If many politicians and government officials had their way, a perfect world would be where they would only talk to Fox News or MSNBC (according to their party), and have all quotes cleared or edited by them first before going into news reports. So reporters would be come P.R. reps.
If the media is indeed “the fourth estate” then letting sources alter or clear quotes as a pre-condition for their agreeing to be sources will be one more step in the disintegration of the estate. Which is why the highly respected AP does not let sources alter quotes.
FOOTNOTE: When I was a reporter overseas and on newspapers in the United States I might call back a source to check a quote for accuracy. That’s not the same thing as giving a source control over the quotes.
The big question: is journalism journalism? Or is it all now going to be PR or political spin masked as what was once called journalism?