As we walked through the cabin, my then-four-year-old son, Tyler, remarked on the lack of a TV. My wife pointed to the radio as the primary entertainment of the day, to which Tyler indignantly sniffed, “I saw that before you said that.”
We still amuse ourselves by teasing my now-adult son about this incident. But not so amusing is how a New York Times story reminded me of that statement. “Disturbing” is the more accurate term.
It seems that the presidential campaign handlers of both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are requiring reporters who want access to the candidates’ key advisors to submit their stories for quote checking before publication. The stories often come back with quotes edited or entirely rewritten.
And even more frightening, many news media have agreed to this—Bloomberg, Reuters, even the Times itself.
This practice is like a paraphrase of Tyler’s statement: “What I meant wasn’t what I said, so I changed it.” It’s a means of revising history. Or more accurately, it’s a way of controlling an ostensibly free press.
Imagine if this policy wasn’t limited to quotes. What if these advisors could change a reporter’s account of an event? It’s not a big leap from revising quotes to revising other content.
As a PR professional, I get why the campaign folks cherish the opportunity to review (and edit) their quotes. Now and then I’ve had reason to wish the same thing. But the responsibility isn’t on the reporter to quote my intent; it’s my responsibility to communicate that intent clearly and accurately in the first place, or to make sure my client is equipped to do so.
Then I can expect clarity and accuracy in the resulting coverage—or hold the reporter accountable if it’s not.
Journalism is more demanding, competitive and cutthroat today than ever before. Under immense pressure by the endless news cycle, declining revenues, shrinking staff and controlling interests outside of the journalistic realm, it’s become easier than ever for the media to compromise.
The problem is, a compromise of this sort makes the media its own worst enemy. As a consumer, how can I trust anything that a news outlet reports if I can’t be certain that the words supposedly spoken were, in fact, spoken?