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Access Journalism at its Nadir

When Will the New York Times Show Some Spine?

by STEVE BREYMAN

I just stumbled across this headline: “McClatchy’s Washington Bureau Establishes No-Alter Quote Policy” (July 20). Sounds weird, no? Let me explain: I’m currently teaching my summer course “How to Read the New York Times.” Yes, it’s as fun as it sounds, and I even get paid.

Sure, we have a media studies textbook, the students maintain critical media literacy blogs, and will also surely tell you that I drone on (and on, and on) by the way of lectures, but the heart of the course is daily reading and deciphering of the Newspaper of Record.

Most summer’s come equipped with their own major stories, cheery stuff like the BP Gulf oil gusher, or the state-sanctioned murders aboard the Mavi Marmara. This summer the anemic coverage of the anemic presidential campaign must suffice, unless you count accounts of the never-ending stream of finance capital crime stories (so many it’s not easy to do).

We are of course most interested in stories (in the Times and elsewhere) on media protocols or practices, journalistic sleights of hand or publishing routines that illustrate larger points about the nature and workings of the corporate and alternative media in the twenty-first century.

The Times, as usual, has been good enough to supply us such stories. These include a couple by Jeremy W. Peters, whose beat includes the news media. Peters reported on July 15 (“Latest Word on the Trail? I Take It Back”) on the curious phenomenon known as “quote approval.” The practice is straightforward: officials with both campaigns will only consent to background interviews with themselves or others (like Mitt Romney’s five sons) should the interviewer send them a transcript and permission to edit it prior to publication.

What had been a metaphor, or at worst a sub rosa crime against the profession of journalism (journalism as stenography; the use of prefab statements or video news releases as actual stories) is now on the front page of the New York Times. Sources now are editors. The perennial struggle between reporters and sources as to what’s on the record, and what’s not, may now be over. At least at the Times, and at least for now.

Peters’ piece has a light, ironic tone; it helps make the medicine go down: “It was difficult to find a news outlet that had not agreed to quote approval, albeit reluctantly. Organizations like Bloomberg, The Washington Post, Vanity Fair, Reuters and The New York Times have all consented to interviews under such terms.”

Peters was back a week later (“National Journal Bars Quotations Tweaked by Sources,” July 22) with a report that he had found a news outlet unwilling to play along with the campaigns’ obsession with message control. “In a memorandum to the staff, Ron Fournier, National Journal’s editor in chief, said, ‘If a public official wants to use NJ as a platform for his/her point of view, the price of admission is a quote that is on-record, unedited and unadulterated.’” And today I came across the announcement from McClatchy’s Washington Bureau.

James Asher, McClatchy’s Washington Bureau chief, had this to say about the policy:

As advocates of the First Amendment, we cannot be intimidated into letting the government control our work. When The New York Times agreed with Bush Administration officials to delay publication of its story of illegal wiretaps of Americans until after the 2004 election, it did the nation a great disservice. Acceding to the Obama administration’s efforts to censor our work to have it more in line with their political spin is another disservice to America.

What alternatives to quote approval does Asher permit his reporters?

While it puts us at a disadvantage, we should argue strenuously for on-the-record interviews with government officials.

When they absolutely refuse, we have only two options. First, halt the interview and attempt to find the information elsewhere. In those cases, our stories should say the official declined comment. Second, we can go ahead with the interview with the straightforward response that whatever ultimately is used will be published without change in tone, emphasis or exact language.

So even though Asher condemns the practice, he believes it places his bureau at a “disadvantage.” Such a view is possible only through the lens of access journalism. Access journalism relies on physical or telecommunications proximity to and good relations with a rich, powerful or otherwise important subject in order to “report” a story. It’s the mode by which most news reporting proceeds on most political and business stories. No access, no story.

“Attempt to find the information elsewhere,” recommends Asher to his reporters barred access by the quote approval policy. Yes, do that (provided the “information” isn’t just the spin of a ‘senior campaign strategist’). Investigate, dig, verify, corroborate. Get off your behinds, stop serving as corporate or government mouthpieces.

“We don’t like the practice,” Dean Baquet, managing editor for news at the Times, told Peters in the July 15 article. “We encourage our reporters to push back. Unfortunately this practice is becoming increasingly common, and maybe we have to push back harder.” Yeah, like at the National Journal or McClatchy’s Washington Bureau. Just say no, Dean Baquet.

Perhaps the Times will do the right thing and issue a no-quote-alteration policy. Gee, other news media outlets might take a cue from the Times and stop the shameful bowing and scraping. Instead, the news news of late from The New York Times Company is of 20 twenty fewer jobs in the newsroom of the Boston Globe, a Times property.  The Globe’s publisher said the layoffs were “part of a program to rebalance the business and will allow us to reallocate resources toward the investments we need as we innovate and introduce new products.” The downsizing comes hard on the heels of the Globe’s reporting on Mitt Romney’s career at Bain Capital–probably the best investigative stories on the topic by any news organization, reported without comment by the Romney campaign.

Steve Breyman teaches in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Reach him at breyms@rpi.edu