Why are reporters letting White House officials approve and edit their own quotes?

AP Photo/Evan Vucci

This isn’t a White House scandal, it’s a media scandal. Every White House will seek to control information; Politico notes that the Obama and Trump White Houses also sought “quote approval” from reporters, although Team Trump did so less aggressively than the Biden White House. Either way, there’s nothing unethical about an official offering an on-the-record quote to a journalist in exchange for the right to edit that quote before it appears in print. The official has no duty to the public to ensure that his comments to the media are as unguarded as possible. If anything, as a public servant, he may feel a duty to clean up those unguarded comments lest they somehow hinder the White House’s ability to enact policies that serve the public good.

It’s the media’s collaboration in the practice that’s unethical. A news bureau has a duty to the public to ensure that its reporting is accurate, fair, and independent. Every news story you and I read comes with certain implied warranties about its integrity, one of which is that it was written by someone who has no personal interest in the subject. Reporters can seek quotes from sources to inform their reporting, obviously, and they owe those sources accuracy and proper context in featuring their comments. But no one’s supposed to have approval over the final copy outside of the publication itself.

Because if they do, that reporting isn’t “independent” anymore.

According to Politico, White House officials are seeking — and receiving — the right to “ghost edit” publications’ copy, or at least the parts of it that came from their own conversations with reporters. Essentially they’re uncredited co-authors. Which means the quotes you’re reading in stories about the Biden White House (at least when someone’s on the record) are de facto press releases, not things said during the course of an interview with the reporter, as we all tend to assume when we see quotation marks:

[T]he Biden White House frequently demands that interviews with administration officials be conducted on grounds known colloquially as “background with quote approval,” according to five reporters who cover the White House for outlets other than POLITICO.

In practice, that means the information from an interview can be used in the story, but in order for the person’s name to be attached to a quote, the reporter must transcribe the quotes they want and then send them to the communications team to approve, veto or edit them

Reporters are reluctant to say no to using background with quote approval because it could put them at a disadvantage with their competitors. “The only way the press has the power to push back against this is if we all band together,” said the first reporter. At least one White House reporting team has been talking internally about reaching out to other outlets to push the Biden team to stop the practice.

The irony is that the practice apparently began in response to criticism often made by conservatives that the media relies too heavily on anonymous sources. Okay, said reporters, we’ll work harder to get officials to go on the record when we quote them. But officials don’t want their names attached to quotes that might make them look bad, whether because they sound sloppy or because they’re critical of some powerful figure or because they’ve inadvertently revealed something they shouldn’t have revealed. Which leaves reporters with an unhappy choice between including the damaging quote but leaving the attribution anonymous or agreeing to let the source clean it up in return for being able to use their name.

As as noted in the excerpt, any outlet that’s willing to show integrity by refusing to participate in “background with quote approval” arrangements places itself as a competitive disadvantage. The NYT has had a policy against it for nearly 10 years; if you’re a Biden official and you know that the Times won’t play ball in letting you ghost-edit a quote as a condition of going on the record, you can simply avoid speaking to them or at least insisting on staying on background when you do speak to them. Unless the media as a matter of industry policy refuses to play ball, sources can always seek out the less scrupulous outlets that’ll grant them “quote approval” when choosing whom to talk to.

What I want to hear more about is the “veto” policy mentioned in the excerpt. Bad enough that a publication would trade editing privileges over a quote given on background to a source in return for having him go on the record. But under what circumstances should a source *ever* have the right to “veto” something he’s told a reporter? If he says something embarrassing or damaging during a conversation in which he’s on background, that should be printed and attributed to an anonymous source. Letting sources “clean up” their own quotes is unethical; letting them bowdlerize accurate news reports to protect themselves is egregious.

This isn’t the only case of the media following the White House’s lead in crafting its own news copy either. Ryan Saavedra notes this story from New York magazine a few days ago about how hard Biden’s comms team works to manage perceptions through language. The most notorious example is resisting any attempt to describe the border crisis as a “crisis” — but their efforts have paid off:

But sometimes dumb tactics yield desired outcomes. In March, the Associated Press distributed a memo advising reporters to “avoid” or “use caution” when using the word crisis. “One very real possibility is this strategy works,” the person added. “They may get criticism in think pieces about it, but at his hundred-day mark, Biden is the most liberal president we’ve had — and the public thinks he’s a moderate. That’s a winning strategy to me. They’re willing to accept that you’re gonna write this piece as long as they know that swing voters in Colorado aren’t gonna read it.”

It’s one thing to have the White House twisting reporters’ arms on “quote approval” as a condition for speaking with them, it’s another thing for news outlets to willingly adopt the White House’s own Orwellian terminology to advance its political interests. Team Joe is playing both hardball and softball with them thanks to reporters’ ideological interests, and they’re winning at both.