“The one sure way to conciliate a tiger is to allow oneself to be devoured.”
- Dean Acheson
I’ve been following the quote approval controversy — the Jeremy Peters story in the New York Times and his colleague David Carr’s follow up piece.
Carr refers to the interview process as a negotiation or transaction. We have a reporter on one side, and on the other a source, typically a campaign or corporation. Negotiations are based on how much leverage the respective parties bring to the table; they must give up something to gain something else. By agreeing to quote approvals, Carr seems to think reporters are selling their souls, or at least their independence:
“But inch by inch, story by story, deal by deal, we are giving away our right to ask a simple question and expect a simple answer, one that can’t be taken back.”
First observation: Carr is using the same slippery slope argument that the NRA uses every time Congress wants to impose minimal regulations,like banning assault rifles.
As the NRA might say:
“Give an inch, they’ll take a mile. WE ARE GIVING AWAY OUR RIGHT TO BEAR ARMS, A RIGHT THAT CAN’T BE TAKEN BACK!!! It’s a slippery slope, man!”
Second observation: If the reporter’s giving up his “right” to receive a spontaneous, ill-phrased answer (GOTCHA!), then what is the source giving up by agreeing to the interview? His right to privacy, his right to be left alone, his right to protect the integrity of his words, i.e., not to be misquoted or taken out of context.
But inch by inch, story by story, deal by deal, the SOURCE is giving away his right to control his WORDS, REPUTATION and IMAGE, which can’t be taken back once mangled.
In this negotiation, the source has built-in leverage, because the reporter cannot force him to do the interview. It may seem obvious, but it’s worth repeating: There’s no law stipulating that I have to take time from my day to be interviewed by a reporter. I do it because I want to do it, or because I fear the consequences of not doing it. I do it because my PR advisor convinces me I need to increase my visibility. I do it because I want to be positioned as an opinion leader, or because I want to share knowledge with the world. It’s a completely voluntary undertaking.
Public officials, of course, have an obligation to be more accessible and to provide the public with timely information. But that’s not a mandate to give the press everything they want, especially when you’re dealing with an adversarial media that views an interview as a negotiation. Media are more interested in narrative and storytelling than factual recitation. Any good story has conflict, escalating obstacles, and a well-defined protagonist and villain. If a conflict-seeking reporter pegs you as the villain, wouldn’t you want to ensure that the reporter at least gets it right? Against this backdrop, quote approval may seem like a no-brainer; likewise if you’re a publicly traded company, where one ill-chosen word can send a stock into a nosedive.
Quote approval is not exactly an earth shattering, paradigm shifting phenomenon. Press releases, speeches, and statements are replete with pre-approved quotes and sound bites from which on-deadline reporters may routinely, and perhaps regretfully, borrow. It’s also practiced on the broadcast side, where news stations in smaller markets run packaged stories — including pre-approved sound bites, b-roll and voice-over. These so-called Video News Releases are distributed to new outlets by PR firms on behalf of their corporate clients. How’s that journalistic independence working for you now?
The negotiation of ground rules between reporters and sources is one thing. What’s new is that top-tier media are now getting into the act, accepting quote approval as a cost of doing business.
And those sources who insist on quote approval as a precondition for an interview — what is their case? Are they simply tired of seeing their words mangled by careless or imprecise reporters? The New York Times‘ David Carr suspects that this line of reasoning may be a guise — what sources really want is to exert greater control over their message. He may well be right. Power is beginning to shift from the reporter to the source, enabling campaigns and corporations to negotiate more aggressively with traditional media or bypass them altogether. In the Beltway, the reporter-source relationship has always been based on mutual dependence.
By ceding to quote approvals, the traditional media are tacitly acknowledging that they have lost considerable leverage: Corporations and campaigns no longer need them, not to the extent they once did.
A few factors are driving this change:
- The Internet and Social Media have flattened the Information-Media Hierarchy. The Internet tore down the wall, leveled the playing field and gave expression to more voices and viewpoints. Meanwhile the traditional voices in print and broadcast media are shrinking via consolidations and mergers, vanishing into thin air or migrating online. The traditional gatekeepers and opinion leaders are disappearing, losing relevance, or being replaced by new gatekeepers and influencers. Consumers are more likely to get their news from Jon Stewart than Brian Williams–from bloggers, niche news sites, Facebook and Twitter than PBS.
- Campaigns have more avenues to reach voters than ever before. With the Internet, Social Media, and Mobile Marketing, campaigns can communicate directly with voters without their message being filtered–and their quotes being mangled–by the media. This is also happening in the corporate world. Companies are bypassing media altogether and building their own branded in-house publishing divisions. In many cases, serious-minded (but out of work) journalists who once sneered at PR types are running the show, fleeing in droves to the “dark side.” The euphemistic “Brand Journalism” was coined to describe this corporate mode of propaganda.
- The rise in adversarial, Gotcha-style journalism. Credibility and believability will always be the media’s Unique Selling Point. As they erode, so does the media’s authority and relevance. Carr quotes David Von Drehle, a writer for Time:
”But we are not blameless. Sound-bite journalism that is more interested
in reporting isolated ‘gaffes’ than conveying the actual substance of a
person’s ideas will naturally cause story subjects to behave defensively.“
How can the media regain the edge in the reporter/source negotiation? Do what the New York Times did – forbid the practice. Carr cites author Buzz Bissinger, who thinks the journalism community can nip this one in the bud if everyone’s on the same page:
“No newspaper should do it,” he said. “If we all said no, they’d
still talk to us, because they need us. We’re not dead yet.”
What price will campaigns, public officials and corporations pay if they continue to bypass or shun traditional media? Elitists would argue that, without the gatekeepers to protect them, the public will be misled. It’s pretty much the same argument that convinced the Founding Fathers to opt for a representative democracy instead of a direct democracy; they feared the latter would give too much power to the people, who they distrusted. Wise middle men, legislative representatives, were needed to counter the people’s passion with reason, their emotion with logic, and their ignorance with enlightenment. Are today’s voters intelligent and well versed enough to receive political messages without the filter of an independent media? An elitist would be dubious.
The idea of journalistic independence has always been something of a myth. In a similar vein, no one really believes that the nine justices of the U.S. Supreme Court are independent and objective in a literal sense. In both scenarios, independence seems more like a vision statement than a mission statement, an ideal to strive for. The real world is more messy than that.
You can’t be an absolutist in the real world. As Donald Rumsfeld might put it, you work with the sources you’re given, not the sources you wish you had. And, in the real world, if a source insists on approving a few quotes, will our fragile democracy be harmed in the process? It wouldn’t seem so.
But don’t quote me on it.