There is a natural tension between campaigns and the political reporters who cover them. Campaigns want to control their message tightly and avoid controversy. Reporters are eager to find out what's really going on behind the scenes and to capture colorful, unscripted moments. This tension is healthy for readers. When reporters break through the wall of familiar talking points, they can provide genuine insights into candidates and their positions.
But now, in exchange for access to top officials, major news organizations have started ceding their editorial independence to campaign overlords. On Tuesday, the New York Times revealed that both the Obama and Romney campaigns are routinely granting interviews to news reporters on the condition that the campaigns get to approve, and even rewrite, quotations by email before they are published.
The New York Times has a reputation for scrupulous detachment from these same top officials. Its reporters do not attend the White House Correspondents' Dinner as guests for fear of mingling inappropriately with the subjects of the paper's coverage. It grants sources anonymity only as "a last resort when the story is of compelling public interest and the information is not available in any other way." Yet even the Gray Lady has agreed to the interview conditions. So have reporters at major and respected news organizations such as National Journal, Bloomberg, the Washington Post, Vanity Fair and Reuters.
It's an inevitable part of Washington journalism that politicians and key officials will sometimes want to go off the record, or on background, so they can speak more freely on a substantive or sensitive issue. But it's quite another thing when interviews are conducted to gather quotations from spin-savvy political operatives, with the understanding that whatever they say, and whatever may be published, is subject to censorship by a campaign determined to expunge anything unflattering -- or even just anything that distracts from its canned message.
In a competitive news environment, political reporters' ability to produce scoops depends on their access to campaign officials. This is the slippery slope that has prompted great news organizations to swallow their scruples. Once some reporters allow quotes to be censored in exchange for interviews, others either follow suit or get shut out. And once quote-censorship has become standard practice, campaigns will at least try to push the line further. It is not hard to see how "story approval" could eventually become a condition for a major interview. After all, who would have thought just ten years ago that the New York Times would let a political campaign sanitize its advisers' quotations?
To its credit, the Associated Press refuses to allow sources to approve quotations. Their Washington bureau chief told Poynter that "if a source insists upon editing a quotation as a condition for using it on the record, 'then you just don't use the quote.' "
The Washington Examiner agrees -- emphatically. We will not grant campaigns or public officials the power to review, veto or edit the quotes that we plan to publish, even if it means we are denied interviews. We urge our fellow news organizations to do the same. Just as journalists need access to campaigns, campaigns need access to journalists. If news organizations refuse to let campaigns censor interviews after the fact, campaigns will have to stop the practice and readers will be better -- and honestly -- served.