Manipulating the message, muzzling the messenger

Jeremy W. Peters of the New York Times recently wrote of an unforgivable attitude by the two major candidates for our nation’s highest office and by their handlers. The deal is this:
Reporters who interview President Obama or Mitt Romney campaign officials, including relatives, cannot publish their stories until the quotations in them are approved and sometimes re-written by the campaign offices. If reporters don’t agree to the quote-cleansing or other demands, they don’t get the interview.

We are all familiar with “I’m Barack Obama and I approved this message” or “I’m Mitt Romney and I approved this message” at the end of the manipulative commercials their campaigns are financing. But now they think they can do the same thing with news stories.
Peters writes:

“Jim Messina, the Obama campaign manager, can be foul-mouthed. But readers would not know it because he deletes the curse words before approving his quotes. Brevity is not a strong suit of David Plouffe, a senior White House adviser. So he tightens up his sentences before givin them the O.K.

“Stuart Stevens, the senior Romney strategist, is fond of disparaging political opponents by quoting authors like Walt Whitman and referring to historical figures like H. R. Haldeman, Richard Nixon’s chief of staff. But such clever lines later rarely make it past Mr. Stevens.”

As we read Peters’ column, it appears our colleagues in the press are not entirely blameless in this sorry situation. “Most reporters, desperate to pick the brains of the president’s top strategists, grudgingly agree (to these conditions),” he says. He continues, after noting the demands from the Romney camp, that these “desperate” reporters say “the changes were almost always small and seemingly unnecessary,” and did not alter the meaning of a quote. But Major Garrett with The National Journal says the manipulation is growing.

Peters notes the spread of this system in an extension of background briefings into something called “deep-background briefings held by the White House in which “reporters may paraphrase what senior administration officials say, but they are forbidden to put anything in quotation marks or identify the speakers. And it gets worse. He cites a briefing recently in which a senior White House adviser, the White House press secretary, and the White House communications director refused to allow quotation marks around many of their comments even if the speaker was not identified. “Even the spokesmen were off limits,” Peters writes.

The object is to keep damaging, often ill-advised, comments by campaign officials and official spokespersons from being reported and becoming fodder for the opposition.
Here’s what it really is.

It is dishonest.

It is dishonest on the part of the Obama and the Romney campaigns. And it is dishonest for reporters to claim the edited quotes are accurate quotes. The freedom of the press was not built and has not been sustained on the idea that the press will cede editorial control of its content to those who want to manipulate the message.

We operate here on the idea that if something is on the record, it’s not subject to review and verbal cleansing by the speaker or any of his associates. Not that the Obama or the Romney campaign officials would lower themselves to talk to the Missourinet to begin with, but if they would—-and in the unlikely event we would talk to a campaign minion instead of the candidate himself—there would be no submission of quotes for review. Anybody who asks or demands that of us can go straight to Hell.

The quote review demand that Peters writes about at the national level is, however, a pernicious progression from several situations we have written about before in this space. The repeated limitations on access to department and division directors by the Nixon administration (and the Blunt administration before), the repeated demands that all answers come from official spokesmen and spokeswomen for agencies, the occasional requests that we outline the questions we want to have answered before interviews are arranged, and the attitude that responses have to stay on-message are not that far behind the quote-approval ransom for interviews that Peters writes about in the New York Times.
A sage philosopher once noted that certain material flows downhill.

Let us all hope—reporters and news consumers alike—that it doesn’t in this case.

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