One of the sillier contretemps of this political year has been the accusation that the presidential campaigns–particularly the Obama Campaign–a.k.a. the Thugs of Chicago–have been engaging in the practice of “quote approval”–asking reporters for the right to adjust quotes from interview material. Some of the commentary has treated this practice as a Dire Threat to the Fourth Estate, and a growing number of news organizations have indignantly banned it.
Even as he piously condemns quote approval, Bush flack Ari Fleischer did semi-accurately describe how it evolved in a CNN column today, though in an act of corporate self-inflation, he wrongly attributes its origins to the administration he served:
Reporters covering Bush’s second term, under pressure from editors not to use unnamed sources in their stories, started asking their sources if a background quote, attributed to a senior aide, could instead be turned into an on-the-record quote, with the aide’s name in print. I e-mailed last week with several former Bush staffers and many confirmed they engaged in that practice.
The trouble, quoth Ari, began when Less Important People got into the act and made quote approval a standard practice rather than an exception from the usual rules.
I hate to tell him, but from my own experience quote approval was common before the second, or even the first Bush term. In my own years as a low-to-mid-level Washington Political Source, when I had to remain constantly on guard against media conversations turning into one of those “Disarray in the Democratic Party” stories, I typically offered reporters answers “on background” (no by name attribution) or in some cases “deep background” (no traceable quotes), take it or leave it. We’d usually agree on a “quote approval” option in case I happened to say something they considered directly quotable. The right of approval was mainly a matter of ensuring there were no misquotes or a serious alteration of context.
Believe me, no reporter I talked to was under the illusion I had any sort of power over them, beyond the enchantment associated with my sparkling personality. More often than not, interviews began and ended “on background,” with no quotes to “approve.” The one reporter I can recall rejecting this sort of arrangement was Ron Brownstein (then with the L.A. Times), who not only eschewed “quote approval,” but insisted that every word of every conservation had to be on the record.
In any event, perhaps “quote approval” has gotten out of hand, but in the constant back-and-forth between reporters and sources, some sort of compromise is inevitable so long as reporters at least occasionally want information rather than quotes. Another part of Fleischer’s account that I find uncompelling is his claim that Less Important Sources had no legitimate reason to seek quote approval. It was us Washington Small Fry who were in danger of getting fired over a “bad quote,” not the Big Fish. And certainly any reporter who thought I was trying to control him or her would have hung up on me in mid-sentence.