So I was kind of (but not really) surprised to learn that our current crop of professional journalists is so cowed by the presidential candidates and their operatives that they have pretty much agreed to let the campaigns vet all quotes before they get published! You read that right. The media, upon whom we rely to present the unvarnished truth, lies and colorful language of those seeking public office, are ready, willing and able stenographers. And, in a piece by Jeremy Peters published in yesterday's New York Times, they ruefully admit that they are nothing but craven shills. And just like the unnamed government sources they are so fond of appeasing and enabling, they themselves would only make their admissions anonymously.
Quote approval is standard practice for the Obama campaign, used by many top strategists and almost all midlevel aides in Chicago and at the White House — almost anyone other than spokesmen who are paid to be quoted. (And sometimes it applies even to them.) It is also commonplace throughout Washington and on the campaign trail.
The Romney campaign insists that journalists interviewing any of Mitt Romney’s five sons agree to use only quotations that are approved by the press office. And Romney advisers almost always require that reporters ask them for the green light on anything from a conversation that they would like to include in an article.This is pretty shocking. Do these so-called reporters really believe that they will be denied access if they refuse to go along with this ridiculous censorship? When I was a reporter a long time ago and covering Hugh Carey's New York gubernatorial campaign, one of his sons came up to the press gaggle with "instructions" about what paragraph of Daddy's speech to put in our leads. We just laughed in his face. We had the power of the pen, and there wasn't a damn thing the pols could do about it. Once they win their elections, of course, media manipulation becomes de rigeur. But while they're desperately trying to win? The press should own these clowns.
But according to Peters, it's only getting worse. The campaign control freaks are freaking out over every last swear word and gaffe. If Obama farts while telling dirty jokes on Air Force One, or Romney lets loose with an F-bombing tirade, we the people will never find out about it. The journos' lips are sealed. Peters' article continues:
Those who did speak on the record said the restrictions seem only to be growing. “It’s not something I’m particularly proud of because there’s a part of me that says, ‘Don’t do it, don’t agree to their terms,’ ” said Major Garrett, a correspondent for The National Journal. “There are times when this feels like I’m dealing with some of my editors. It’s like, ‘You just changed this because you could!’ ”
It was difficult to find a news outlet that had not agreed to quote approval, albeit reluctantly. Organizations like Bloomberg, The Washington Post, Vanity Fair, Reuters and The New York Times have all consented to interviews under such terms.
“We don’t like the practice,” said Dean Baquet, managing editor for news at The New York Times. “We encourage our reporters to push back. Unfortunately this practice is becoming increasingly common, and maybe we have to push back harder.”
The Obama campaign declined to make Mr. Plouffe or Mr. Messina available to explain their media practices. “We are not putting anyone on the record for this story,” said Katie Hogan, an Obama spokeswoman, without a hint of irony. She pointed to the many unrestricted interviews with campaign officials every day on television and when the press corps travels with the president.Jim Naurekas of FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) scathingly calls the campaign press corps a bunch of "brain-picking zombies." He takes the Times article a giant step forward, noting that
He (Peters) doesn't spell out the implication, which is that journalists are thereby serving as PR agents, packaging the messages of political professionals at their direction rather than independently reporting the news.
Responsible journalists shouldn't have to be told that it's wrong to allow your sources to edit their quotes, but apparently the sort of journalists who work for national news outlets do need to be told that. In fact, they need to be told that by their editors, so that when their sources propose such a deal, they can say–sorry, we're not allowed to do that.
At which point, the political strategists can respond in one of two ways: Maybe they'll realize that they need the press more than the press needs them, and they'll allow journalists to do their jobs without interference.The only thing worse than covering Rotary Club lunches is covering campaign season. The operatives will try to spin you in a thousand different directions. The trick is to Just Say No. The candidates are desperate, people! This reminds me of another time when I was working the graveyard shift at the local rag and the guy trailing in the polls in the State Assembly race showed up at the locked office, banging frantically on the door and waving yet another press release. Begging, begging, begging for an interview. Now the roles are reversed and reporters are the ones begging and maybe even banging for access. Fourth estate, my ass.
But that was then and this is now. I guess since corporations and billionaires are allowed to contribute anonymously and without limits to the campaigns, the candidates themselves are smugly secure in their own new-found anonymous corrupt miasmas. The Disclose Act, which would have forced political donors to reveal their identities, has just died a filibustered death in Congress.
So -- candidates and their PACs don't need no stinking reporters when they have millions of anonymous dollars to spend on TV attack ads. According to Bloomberg News, just about nine out of every ten political ads now being run are negative. Instead of getting unspun information and substantive policy discussions, we're getting caught in the middle of an unfettered food fight, a non-stop bash-o-rama gone wild. Even the fact-checking organizations are getting attacked for daring to disclose their inconvenient facts.
And just think, only sixteen more weeks of this to go. All we can do is shut off the TV, and try to stay sane.