George Orwell, a font of wisdom on politics and power, once wrote that “journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: Everything else is public relations.”
That remark came to mind the other day when I heard author Michael Lewis pulling back the curtain on a tawdry journalistic practice that’s now standard procedure in Washington, D.C. Lewis wanted to hang out with President Obama and write about it for Vanity Fair. The White House said “yes,” but only on the condition that he submit his quotes to the Obama team in advance of publication – in case the president’s handlers deemed it necessary to censor something.
Lewis made the deal. As he explained on NPR, “The agreement I had with (them) was, ‘Don’t worry about me. I don’t mind you vetting his quotes, and if you set me up with an interview with someone else in the White House and I want to quote that person, I’ll show you those quotes, too.’ And that ended up happening.” Lewis says he was compelled to excise an “emotional” scene, but little else. The article is on newsstands now, and – this will shock you – Obama comes off as one of the most awesome dudes on Earth.
But I was more shocked to learn that it’s de rigueur in D.C. these days for political journalists to become complicit in their sources’ spin, to act as stenographers for the people they cover. Pardon my naivete, but in all my years on the campaign trail, I had always believed that it would be a flagrant breach of ethics to let my sources vet their own quotes prior to publication, lest they insist on cleaning up or doctoring or killing what they had already said on the record. I was trained to believe that sources should never be permitted to function as editors.
Yet now, apparently, this is how the game is played. I suspect that most news consumers didn’t know about this. The Obama campaign routinely bars access to its top players, unless the players get quote approval. The Romney campaign does the same thing. And the journalists who hunger for access become co-conspirators in a process that further blurs the line between truth and fakery.
Which reminds me of a scene in the film “Broadcast News.” A TV producer admonishes a reporter for crying on camera in one of his stories. She yells, “You totally crossed the line!” The reporter shrugs, “It’s hard not to cross it. They keep moving the little sucker, don’t they?”
One can understand why the campaigns want to control the info flow. News moves with lightning speed in our digitized, Twitterized universe; any verbal gaffe or errant phrase or misquote (yes, that happens, too) can drive the dialogue for days. A politician’s fortunes can be changed in a flash by a viral story that people read in their palms while queuing up for coffee.
But what we lose, thanks to what media critic Howard Kurtz calls “a devil’s bargain,” are the authenticity and spontaneity that real people bring to the human comedy.
I’m not suggesting that insiders are blatantly editing themselves; no Romney aide has ever said, “My candidate is a tin-eared fathead who should be counting his money in the Caymans,” and later insisted, as the price for access, that it be changed to, “He’s a cross between Cicero and Pericles.” No, the corruption is more subtle. We’ll never know what these sources really said on the record before they were allowed to strip their remarks of anything provocative, colorful or inadvertently insightful.
The only solution is to just say “no,” to arrest the slow-motion slide toward propaganda. As a matter of policy, the Associated Press refuses to grant quote approval. So do the Philadelphia Inquirer, the National Journal and the McClatchy newspaper chain. If all media outlets banded together, the political insiders – who are anxious to get their messages out – would be compelled to loosen their censorship demands. But journalists are tougher to herd than cats in a rainstorm. Someone with a story angle will always be willing to trade independence for access.
So the next time you read comments by “a White House aide” or a “campaign strategist,” feel free to mentally rewrite the sentence so that it reads: “An aide said today, in comments that he was allowed to edit and revise in advance of publication, after demanding that the reporter e-mail him the original quotes.…”
But there’s one ray of hope. No matter how often the campaign spinners nudge journalists into Orwellian territory, they can’t police the words that emanate from the candidates’ mouths. When Mitt Romney is outed on camera voicing dismissive contempt for virtually half the American electorate, it’s too late for quote approval. In rare but inevitable moments of spontaneity, the candidates still shape their own fortunes.