The New York Times’ Jeremy W. Peters published a much-talked-about mini-exposé Sunday on the heinous Washington practice of quote approval, whereby reporters must submit quotes from interviews with key players before publishing them. From the story:
The push and pull over what is on the record is one of journalism’s perennial battles. But those negotiations typically took place case by case, free from the red pens of press minders. Now, with a millisecond Twitter news cycle and an unforgiving, gaffe-obsessed media culture, politicians and their advisers are routinely demanding that reporters allow them final editing power over any published quotations.
The institution of quote approval offends anyone who cares about journalistic independence. Peters found one of those types on his own masthead. Dean Baquet, the Times’ managing editor for news, was quoted in the piece as saying: “We don’t like the practice. We encourage our reporters to push back. Unfortunately this practice is becoming increasingly common, and maybe we have to push back harder.”
Since the story came out, word has percolated at the Times that Baquet’s push-back-harder movement may well be afoot — that the paper’s masthead is considering whether it should direct reporters not to play ball with the quote approvers.
Baquet tells me via e-mail that an evaluation is indeed in progress. “We are reviewing our policy,” he writes, “but it is premature to say what the outcome will be.” A newsroom source at the New York Times notes that any new policy “would have to be done very carefully in order to take into account the wildly different circumstances under which reporters are interviewing people every day. It’s not that there’s a resistance to putting anything in writing, it’s just how you do it.”
Should Baquet & Co. decide to bar reporters from quote-approval exchanges, they’ll get steadfast cooperation from at least one staffer. New York Times Magazine national politics writer Mark Leibovich understands why sources want quote-approval protection, given “how high the stakes can be if you say something stupid. But: “I don’t think any of us like it and it shouldn’t be that complicated — either you’re talking on the record or not talking on the record. To introduce middle ground adds needless complication to the transaction,” says Leibovich. “The reason this is such a drag is that you’re introducing a retroactive element of negotiation that can become very, very dicey and very, very complicated.”
Perhaps the New York Times will be joining the Associated Press, which doesn’t do footsie with quote-approval types.