Media critic

The quote-approval story is showing some legs as it stretches into its second week in the journo-newsiverse. On July 15, Jeremy W. Peters of the New York Times wrote about the Washington-centric institution in which sources are allowed to veto — and reword — quotes attributed to them by reporters.

Editors spanning this content area took note. The New York Times, for instance, signaled that it was reviewing its policies on this practice. The Associated Press announced it doesn’t play this game. And more recently, McClatchy and the National Journal disapproved quote approval. Here’s the memo from Ron Fournier, editor in chief of the National Journal Group:

I’m sure you have been following the dust up over government officials demanding that news organizations permit them to clear their quotes .

Frankly, I’m not sure why there is a controversy. Our policy and common sense dictate that we don’t allow public officials to edit NJ coverage.

A quotation is just as important as any other paragraph in your story. If not, you wouldn’t include it.

So how is ceding control of an interview or quote any different than letting a press secretary edit any other paragraph? The entire story? All your stories? It’s not. Don’t do it.

If a public official wants to use NJ as a platform for his/her point of view, the price of admission is a quote that is on-record, unedited and unadulterated. Proposed exceptions can be discussed case-by-case with your editor.

We can’t hold leaders accountable while allowing them to pull our punches.

Ask any question via email or at next week’s brownbag — Friday, noon, in the boardroom. Major Garrett will lead us in discussion of what he calls “the slippery-slope this practice has become.”

That slope is greased by terminology. The very notion of something called “quote approval” inherently offends journalists and anyone who cares about accountability. As Fournier suggests, little deliberation is required to stiff any official who tells you before an interview, “I must approve all quotes.”

Yet quote approval doesn’t always unfold under such patently objectionable terms. Sources will often tell a reporter that their comments are off the record or on background, before adding: Just let me know if you want to move anything to on the record.

That’s a quasi-quote-approval scheme, if not the precise variation discussed in the New York Times story. Peters of the New York Times says that he was highlighting “something much more systematic” than moving something from background to on-the-record, which he says is “common and far less problematic.” The Post’s Karen Tumulty addressed it in a chat last week:

Sometimes, they want a chance to discuss something on background first — and I often find it very useful to listen to a source as he or she sorts through his or her own thoughts on a subject. Often, the alternative here is that you don’t talk to the source at all.

Today I asked Fournier whether such a migration — of comments that go from one basis to another — would run afoul of National Journal’s rules. “No, there’d be nothing stopping you from doing that,” says Fournier. However, if the source demanded this change and that change and, oh, this other change to the text, “now you’re on a slippery slope,” he says. The AP told’s Steve Myers that it’s okay with basis migration.

The key, says Fournier, is control: Reporters need to maintain it. “What I’m doing is what my editors did for me at AP — they gave me control of the relationship. I’m letting my reporters know that they don’t have to be in a position where sources edit quotes, and sources don’t determine ground rules for conversations,” he says.

Nor is he stopping there. Fournier is giving his people carte blanche to blow up the comfy rules of engagement in official Washington: If one of his reporters is on one of those “background briefing” conference calls, he’d stand by the reporter saying something like this: “Sorry, but this is a conference call . . . and I’m letting you know that it’s going to be on the record.”

An inspirational message right there. Not to mention, a touch idealistic. As Jack Shafer mentioned in that chat: “Another aspect to Washington/campaign reporting is that reporters outnumber important sources by 100-1.” That means trouble for leverage.

A take: Though basis migration isn’t as systematic as the setup described in the New York Times story, it lives in the same apartment complex. As long as it’s an approved MO, editors like Fournier will need to practice daily vigilance to keep it from straying into corrupt corridors.

Whatever the case, Fournier doesn’t want the young journalists in his shop to get the notion that quote-approval is SOP: “It makes me sad to think that there are reporters coming out of college who . . . think they’re going to have to spend their entire careers getting their quotes cleared. What my memo says is you don’t have to do that,” he says.