The Evolution of Reporters Into Stenographers Is Nearly Complete


It’s long been standard for politicians to unilaterally insist that briefings be either “on background” or “off the record” (there are subtle distinctions between the two), and it’s long been standard for reporters to agree to this. But apparently that’s not enough for modern campaigns:

The quotations come back redacted, stripped of colorful metaphors, colloquial language and anything even mildly provocative. They are sent by e-mail from the Obama headquarters in Chicago to reporters who have interviewed campaign officials under one major condition: the press office has veto power over what statements can be quoted and attributed by name.

Most reporters, desperate to pick the brains of the president’s top strategists, grudgingly agree. 

….Quote approval is standard practice for the Obama campaign, used by many top strategists and almost all midlevel aides in Chicago and at the White House — almost anyone other than spokesmen who are paid to be quoted. (And sometimes it applies even to them.) It is also commonplace throughout Washington and on the campaign trail.

The Romney campaign insists that journalists interviewing any of Mitt Romney’s five sons agree to use only quotations that are approved by the press office. And Romney advisers almost always require that reporters ask them for the green light on anything from a conversation that they would like to include in an article.

I’d really like to blame the campaigns for this, but how can I? Their job is to sell a candidate. If reporters agree to this madness, they really have no one to blame but themselves. Are they really this desperate for interviews with campaign flacks? Why? It’s not as if campaign officials ever say anything all that newsworthy in the first place.

What’s that, you say? If they refuse, they won’t have anything to write about? Please. These kinds of campaign stories almost never produce anything of real interest. If reporters were banned from doing them, virtually nothing would be lost. In fact, the quality of campaign reporting might very well go up.

DOES IT FEEL LIKE POLITICS IS AT A BREAKING POINT?

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It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

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