by Jeremy W. Peters
July 15, 2012
from NYTimes Website
New York Times openly admits mainstream
media stories are scripted by the White House
Yana Paskova for The New York
Times, left; Stephen Crowley/The New York Times
Even top campaign officials like Eric Fehrnstrom, left, a Romney adviser,
and David Plouffe, a senior
White House adviser, foreground at right,
insist at times on approval
of their quotations.
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
Most reporters, desperate to pick the brains of the president’s top
strategists, grudgingly agree. After the interviews, they review their
notes, check their tape recorders and send in the juiciest sound bites for
The verdict from the campaign - an operation that prides itself on staying
consistently on script - is often no,
Barack Obama does not approve
The push and pull over what is on the record is one of journalism’s
perennial battles. But those negotiations typically took place case by case,
free from the red pens of press minders. Now, with a millisecond Twitter
news cycle and an unforgiving, gaffe-obsessed media culture, politicians and
their advisers are routinely demanding that reporters allow them final
editing power over any published quotations.
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.
From Capitol Hill to the Treasury Department, interviews granted only with
quote approval have become the default position.
Those officials who dare to speak out of school,
but fearful of making the slightest off-message remark, shroud even the most
innocuous and anodyne quotations in anonymity by insisting they be referred
to as a “top Democrat” or a “Republican strategist.”
It is a double-edged sword for journalists, who are getting the
on-the-record quotes they have long asked for, but losing much of the
spontaneity and authenticity in their interviews.
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 giving
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.
such clever lines later rarely make it past Mr. Stevens.
Many journalists spoke about the editing only if granted anonymity, an irony
that did not escape them. No one said the editing altered the meaning of a
quote. The changes were almost always small and seemingly unnecessary, they
Those who did speak on the record said the restrictions seem only to be
“It’s not something I’m particularly proud
of because there’s a part of me that says, ‘Don’t do it, don’t agree to
their terms,’ ” said Major Garrett, a correspondent for The National
“There are times when this feels like I’m
dealing with some of my editors. It’s like, ‘You just changed this
because you could!’ ”
It was difficult to find a news outlet that had
not agreed to quote approval, albeit reluctantly.
The New York Times,
...have all consented to
interviews under such terms.
“We don’t like the practice,” said Dean
Baquet, managing editor for news at The New York Times.
“We encourage our reporters to push back.
Unfortunately this practice is becoming increasingly common, and maybe
we have to push back harder.”
The Obama campaign declined to make Mr. Plouffe
or Mr. Messina available to explain their media practices.
“We are not putting anyone on the record for
this story,” said Katie Hogan, an Obama spokeswoman, without a hint of
She pointed to the many unrestricted interviews
with campaign officials every day on television and when the press corps
travels with the president.
Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, said the White House has
made a concerted effort to make more officials available to the news media.
“We have a lot more people talking a lot
more often now,” he said.
Both presidential campaigns are keenly aware of
what can happen when they speak too freely.
Damaging sound bites can live on in the news
cycle for days. Mr. Obama’s remark last month during a televised news
conference that “the private sector is doing fine” landed almost immediately
in attack ads. And Eric Fehrnstrom’s “Etch A Sketch” comment on CNN, about
softening some of the harder positions Mr. Romney took during the primaries,
continues to haunt the Romney campaign five months later.
Reporters who have covered the Obama presidency say the quote-approval
process fits a pattern by this White House of finding new ways to limit its
exposure in the news media.
“We realize there’s a caution and a wariness
about stray comments driving the news cycle,” said Caren Bohan of
Reuters, president of the White House Correspondents’ Association.
“The argument we make is that if a president
or a candidate is out there more, I think these things are less likely
to be as glaring.”
Modern White Houses have long had “background
briefings,” gatherings of top officials who speak to reporters under the
condition that they are quoted anonymously.
With time, the restrictions have become broader,
often bordering on the absurd.
In 2007, Vice President
Dick Cheney outed himself in a briefing the White
House intended to be anonymous during an overseas trip.
“I’ve seen some press reporting says,
‘Cheney went in to beat up on them,’ ” the vice president told
reporters, according to the official transcript, adding, “That’s not the
way I work.”
Though reporters with him protested, the vice
president’s office refused to allow them to identify Mr. Cheney by name -
even though it was clear who was speaking.
Under President Obama, the insistence on blanket anonymity has grown to new
The White House’s latest innovation is a variation of the background
briefing called the “deep-background briefing,” which it holds for groups of
reporters, sometimes several dozen at a time.
Reporters may paraphrase what senior
administration officials say, but they are forbidden to put anything in
quotation marks or identify the speakers.