The Mast-Head: Beyond the Red Line

A devil’s bargain

   A fuss broke out in the world of journalism earlier this month, when several leading news organizations admitted they had agreed to allow the Obama and Romney campaign staffs to review quotations before publication. A New York Times reporter, Jeremy W. Peters, broke the story about this devil’s bargain, which included his own paper among others.
    From where I sit in my creaky, wooden editor’s chair, it should be inconceivable that professional reporters at the highest level would go along with a demand that allows sources to massage what they (or their candidates) say after the fact or to kill unfavorable points altogether.
    According to Mr. Peters’s account, The Washington Post, Vanity Fair, Bloomberg, and Reuters had also agreed to allow interview quotes to be vetted by officials in exchange for access to sources.
    Accuracy is one thing, but that is not at all what the campaigns are interested in. Both sides frequently have asked for changes to off-the-cuff statements to make their man look better. The message, Mr. Peters amusingly wrote, can be, “. . . no, Barack Obama does not approve this message.”
    The single exception was the Associated Press, which deserves a Pulitzer for this just on principle. The AP’s rule, explained by its Washington bureau chief to Steve Myers, a Poynter Institute writer, was that changing quotes after the fact was a “red line” not to be crossed. That is how it is at this newspaper — as it should be across the journalism spectrum.
    I find it particularly bad that The New York Times, which suffered a serious blow thanks to Judith Miller (a part-time Sag Harbor resident) in the overheated lead up to the Iraq war, would agree to this practice.  Ms. Miller eventually was derided for working too closely with her sources in repeating false information to build the Bush administration’s case for the United States invasion based on erroneous reports about supposed weapons of mass destruction.
    It is perhaps a stretch to go from campaign trail blather to helping an administration send troops to their deaths on false pretenses, but the ethical standard should be the same. Reporters and news organizations that cede any part of the story to their sources’ control are no longer fulfilling their essential role as the people’s watchdog.