Skip to main content

Dan Rather: 'Quote approval' a media sellout

By Dan Rather, Special to CNN
July 19, 2012 -- Updated 2153 GMT (0553 HKT)
Dan Rather says newspapers and other news outlets must push back on candidates' demands to review quotes.
Dan Rather says newspapers and other news outlets must push back on candidates' demands to review quotes.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Reporters are agreeing to let candidates vet their quotes before they appear in stories
  • Dan Rather: Allowing candidates to edit their quotes makes reports fraudulent
  • By making this "bargain" for access, he says, reporters essentially become PR agents
  • Rather: Newspapers and media outlets must push back on "quote approval"

Editor's note: Dan Rather is anchor and managing editor of AXS TV's "Dan Rather Reports," which runs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. ET. For more, visit Dan Rather's official website, Dan Rather Reports on Facebook and Dan Rather Reports on Twitter.

(CNN) -- A New York Times front-page article Monday detailed a new phenomenon in news coverage of the presidential campaign: candidates insisting on "quote approval," telling reporters what they can and cannot use in some stories. And, stunningly, reporters agreeing to it.

This, folks, is news. Any way you look at it, this is a jaw-dropping turn in journalism, and it raises a lot of questions. Among them: Can you trust the reporters and news organizations who do this? Is it ever justified on the candidate's side or on the reporter's side? Where is this leading us?

As someone who's been covering presidential campaigns since the 1950s, I have no delusions about political reporting. Candidates bargaining access to get the kind of news coverage they want is nothing new. The thicket of attribution and disclosure deals is a deep maze reporters have been picking their way through even before my time. But this latest tactic by candidates revealed by the Times gives me, to say the least, great pause. It should give every citizen pause.

Dan Rather
Dan Rather

Essentially, what the Times described was the rapid rise of "quote approval" -- a strategy deployed by campaigns requiring reporters to send quotations they intend to use to candidates' press officers, to be sliced, diced, edited and drained of color or unwanted consequences, and reporters going along, fearing that if they don't, they won't get access.

A look at media coverage of Romney's Bain pain

Here's how it works: Let's say a reporter is granted an interview with a senior strategist of the Obama or Romney campaign. A condition for the interview would be that before the reporter could send the story to the editor, he or she would have to agree to submit for approval every quote intended to be used to the campaign press staff.

Let us mark well this Faustian bargain. It is for the benefit of the politicians, at the expense of readers, listeners and viewers. It is not in the public interest; it is designed to further the candidates' interests.

Political operatives cannot be blamed for wanting this. We, the press, should be held accountable for letting them have it.

Thomas Jefferson said: "The only security of all is in a free press." A free and truly independent press -- fiercely independent when necessary -- is the red beating heart of freedom and democracy. One of the most important roles of our journalists is to be watchdogs. Submitting to these new tactics puts us more in the category of lapdogs.

For many years, it has been typical journalistic practice for high-ranking officials on the campaign or in the White House to demand that interviews be conducted "on background" -- meaning reporters agree to not use direct quotes or identify the person by name. Hence, conventions such as "As one campaign official said ..." This, in many cases, is defensible.

Diane Sawyer's "Hot" Newscast

But the practice described in the Times is something new and different. This is the officials or candidates regularly insisting that reporters essentially become an operative arm of the administration or campaign they are covering.

"Quote approval" nullifies, or at least seriously dilutes, reporters' ability and duty to be honest brokers of information. When the quotes are sanitized, then delivered intact with full attribution, the public has no way of knowing what the concealed deal was.

Please know that there is no joy in calling attention to these things. I respect and empathize with reporters and editors who must compete in today's environment. And I know full well that when I've been covering campaigns, which I still do, I've made my mistakes and have been far from perfect.

About all of us doing this line of work, I'm often reminded of a sign in an old Wild West cow town saloon that said, "Please don't shoot the piano player, he's doing the best he can."

But we journalists can do better. We must.

Media Blitz Batters Romney

Dean Baquet, the excellent managing editor for news at the Times, said in Monday's story, referring to quote approval: "We don't like the practice. We encourage our reporters to push back. Unfortunately, this practice is becoming increasingly common, and maybe we have to push back harder."

Yes. The Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and a few other newspapers, along with the major networks, are among the few news outlets that have the leverage to push back -- soon and hard. It's action worthy of us. And it's important. It matters.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Rather.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2152 GMT (0552 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2121 GMT (0521 HKT)
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
ADVERTISEMENT