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
April 24, 2014 -- Updated 1918 GMT (0318 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says as violence claims three U.S. doctors, the temptation is to despair, but aid to Afghanistan has made it a much better place
April 24, 2014 -- Updated 1833 GMT (0233 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says in California, Asian-Americans are against the use of racial criteria in public colleges.
April 24, 2014 -- Updated 1844 GMT (0244 HKT)
Heidi Schlumpf says if the Pope did tell an Argentinian woman married to a divorced man that she could take Communion, it may signify a softening of church rules on the divorced and sacraments
April 24, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Norcross, Georgia, Chief of Police Warren Summers says the new law that allows guns in bars, churches and schools will have unintended dangerous consequences.
April 24, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Mel Robbins says social media is often ruled by haters, and people can be brutally honest.
April 24, 2014 -- Updated 1644 GMT (0044 HKT)
Mike Downey says the golf purists can take a hike; the game needs radical changes to win back fans and players.
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Robert Hickey says most new housing development is high-end, catering to high-earners.
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Alexander Motyl says as Russian President Putin snarled at Ukraine, his foreign minister was signing a conciliatory accord with the West. Whatever the game, the accord is a major stand down by Russia
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 1229 GMT (2029 HKT)
Les Abend says at every turn, the stowaway teen defied the odds of discovery and survival. What pilot would have thought to look for a person in the wheel well?
April 24, 2014 -- Updated 1104 GMT (1904 HKT)
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1737 GMT (0137 HKT)
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1256 GMT (2056 HKT)
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 2036 GMT (0436 HKT)
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1708 GMT (0108 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1817 GMT (0217 HKT)
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1752 GMT (0152 HKT)
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1825 GMT (0225 HKT)
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1026 GMT (1826 HKT)
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1250 GMT (2050 HKT)
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
ADVERTISEMENT