Friday, March 14, 2003
It seems more people are noticing the unusual complacency of the American Press following last week's highly unusual White House Press Conference. For example. Then this memo sent to Jim Romenesko's media watch on Poynter.org:
13/2003 2:41:44 PM
From JONATHAN WEISMAN, Economics Writer, Washington Post:
In the wake of Seymour Hersh's open statements about the way the White House treats the press, I feel compelled to relate a personal story that illustrates how both the White House and the press have allowed manipulation of the printed word in Washington to get out of hand. This is a bit of a confession as well as an appeal to the White House and my fellow reporters to rethink the way journalism is practiced these days.
Recently, I was working on a profile of the now-departed chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, R. Glenn Hubbard. I dutifully went through the White House press office to talk to an administration economist about Hubbard's tenure, and a press office aide helpfully got me in touch with just the person I wanted. The catch was this: The interview would be off the record. Any quotes I wanted to put into the newspaper would have to be e-mailed to the press office. If approved, the quotation could be attributed to a White House official. (This has become fairly standard practice.)
Since the profile focused on Hubbard's efforts to translate relatively arcane macroeconomic theory into public policy, the quote I wanted referenced the president's effort to end the double taxation of dividends: "This is probably the most academic proposal ever to come out of an administration." The press office said it was fine, but the official wanted a little change. Instead, the quote was to read, "This is probably the purest, most far reaching economic proposal ever to come out of an administration." I protested that the point of the quote was the word "academic," so the quote was again amended to state, "This is probably the purest, most academic, most far reaching economic proposal ever to come out of an administration."
What appeared in the Washington Post was, "This is probably the purest, most academic ... economic proposal ever to come out of an administration." What followed was an angry denunciation by the White House press official, telling me I had broken my word and violated journalistic ethics.
I had, of course, violated journalistic ethics, by placing into quotation marks a phrase that was never uttered by the source, ellipses or no ellipses. I had also played ball with the White House using rules that neither I nor any other reporter should be assenting to. I think it is time for all of us to reconsider the way we cover the White House. If administration officials want to speak off the record, they are off the record. If they are on background as an administration official, I suppose that's the best we can expect. But the notion that reporters are routinely submitting quotations for approval, and allowing those quotes to be manipulated to get that approval, strikes me as a step beyond business as usual.
Many who watch events closely have suspected that which this memo describes for some time. Surely the American media has been seriously troubled since long before the days of O.J. But this quote that I read in this morning's San Francisco Bay Guardian reminded me of something I've wanted to post on this site:
"The purpose of journalism is to monitor the centers of power – to challenge officialdom," Robert Fisk, veteran Middle East correspondent for the U.K.'s Independent newspaper, told us by phone from Beirut. "By and large, the media in the United States has totally failed in its obligation to do that. Instead of challenging officialdom, it's become a conduit, a funnel down which officialdom can talk to us."
I want to extend my thanks to the members of the world press who I find myself turning more and more to for information unavailable in the United States except via this blessed internet. Thank you
To all of you mentioned and not, when this is over I'd like to give all of you fine reporters a medal for attempting to keep a still free people fully informed. Thanks!