The Power of Shame

Last week, The New York Times revealed that "quote approval" has become standard practice when reporters deal with both the Obama and Romney campaigns as well as with the Obama administration. The way it works is that a reporter interviews an official, then submits the quotes she intends to use in her stories back to the campaign, which only appear if the campaign approves them. Not only that, the campaign often edits the quotes to make them more to their liking.

Lo and behold, news organizations are now announcing they will no longer submit quotes for approval. National Journal says it won't. McClatchy says no more. The New York Times is thinking about it. To tell you the truth, I'm a bit surprised. But I guess shame is a powerful thing.

The reason I'm surprised is that stuff like this is made possible by the relentless competition between news organizations. If a reporter says what you'd think a reporter would say—"You said what you said, and I'm putting it in my story whether you like it or not"—or, as is more often the case, "Of course I'm not going to let you approve the quotes, let me just ask you my questions and you can answer them"—she can expect that her next request for an interview will be denied. That hurts her professionally and hurts her news organization, since they're shut out from those sources. So I would have thought that collective action would be necessary: All the reporters on the plane getting together and saying to the campaign, "We've had it with this, and we're not agreeing to it anymore." If they did that, the campaign would have no choice but to agree, because they need the press to get their message out. But that kind of collective action doesn't happen often among a group of people who are competing with each other for scoops.

The relationship between campaigns and the people who cover them is full of contradictions. On one hand, the two groups hold each other in barely concealed contempt. The candidate and his staff consider reporters to be a mindless herd of shallow, strategy-obsessed wretches who are constantly hoping for some kind of mistake or scandal while ignoring the good things the candidate has done and the detailed policies he has carefully crafted. The reporters consider the people who work on the campaign to be a bunch of cynical, manipulative operators who would lie to their own mothers if it might win them a few more points in Ohio.

On the other hand, the two groups are utterly dependent on one another. Without the campaign, the reporters can't do their jobs, jobs that have become increasingly challenging as they have been called upon to produce a never-ending stream of news for their organizations' various platforms. The campaign needs the reporters to tell the voters what it is doing and saying. They travel together, talk to each other, and engage in a constant negotiation about what is news and what the news ought to say.

There's a vicious cycle at work that is of the campaigns' own making: The more scripted and careful they are, the more reporters yearn for something unscripted, so when a "gaffe" occurs they often give it more attention than it deserves. Then every gaffe makes the campaigns more fearful of screwing up, so they become more scripted, which the reporters hate, and on and on it goes. But at least in this case, the cold light of public attention seems to have made some news organizations turn their back on a practice that no doubt left them feeling private shame.

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