Friday, March 14, 2003

The Blame Game

Jill Dutt, one of the editors at the Washington Post, writes to Medianews regarding Jonathan Weisman's letter:

In case Jonathan Weisman's notes have caused any confusion about The Post's policy on quotations, let me describe it.

Reporters are not allowed to change a quote once it's been uttered. Anything appearing within quotation marks and published in The Post must be a verbatim rendering of what a source said. We do allow reporters, on occasion, to conduct background interviews with the understanding that if they want to quote the source, they check the quote. Reporters are supposed to get approval from an editor in advance of making an agreement to read back quotes.

While poor Mr. Weisman has to backtrack to try and save his probably alread-severed neck:

From JONATHAN WEISMAN, Economics Writer, Washington Post: Subject -- A follow-up. Given the response to my initial letter, I feel compelled to send a follow-up explaining what happened after my run-in with the White House press office over this single quotation. I was (and am) new to the Post. After the flap, I went to my editor, the assistant managing editor for financial news, Jill Dutt, to apprise her of the situation. Understandably, she was not pleased that even two words "the purest" appeared in the paper when they were not actually uttered by the interviewee. It is quite explicitly Post policy not to construct quotes in any way. Quotation marks are sacrosanct; they denote to readers the exact words uttered by a source.

That was the first quotation negotiation that I engaged in with the White House and it was and will be the last. And no, I have received no comment from the White House since my first letter on this subject.

Are we to really believe that Weisman was just a poor rookie duped into submission by the White House, which otherwise never does these things? If so, then the purpose, tone, and content in his original letter were completely at odds with this. He said:

This is a bit of a confession as well as an appeal to the White House and my fellow reporters to rethink the way journalism is practiced these days.

The catch was this: The interview would be off the record. Any quotes I wanted to put into the newspaper would have to be e-mailed to the press office. If approved, the quotation could be attributed to a White House official. (This has become fairly standard practice.)


I think it is time for all of us to reconsider the way we cover the White House. If administration officials want to speak off the record, they are off the record. If they are on background as an administration official, I suppose that's the best we can expect. But the notion that reporters are routinely submitting quotations for approval, and allowing those quotes to be manipulated to get that approval, strikes me as a step beyond business as usual.

Now, if he actually gone to his editor after the "flap" as he claimed (which flap isn't quite clear) and she told him that this shouldn't happen, then one would suspect he would have walked away knowing he got played and thinking that it wasn't a problem. Clearly, in his first letter, he thinks it is a serious and widespread problem - standard practice, in fact.

Some other White House reporters should come forward and corroborate what this guy has claimed. If not, he may have just finished his career before he started it. Shame on all of you who don't.