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Garfield writes: "The weather here in Washington this week was hot and humid. That's on background, of course. Do not quote me. You can use the information only if you attribute to 'a beltway source who could not be named because he is not authorized to speak about meteorology.'"

'Ridiculous, pusillanimous, deceitful attributions are a standard tool of the Washington press corps.' (photo: Shawn Thew/EPA)
'Ridiculous, pusillanimous, deceitful attributions are a standard tool of the Washington press corps.' (photo: Shawn Thew/EPA)


Washington's Press Is the Cabin Boy of the Political Class

By Bob Garfield, Guardian UK

04 August 12

 

he weather here in Washington this week was hot and humid. That's on background, of course. Do not quote me. You can use the information only if you attribute to "a beltway source who could not be named because he is not authorised to speak about meteorology".

Here's what you can quote me on: such ridiculous, pusillanimous, deceitful attributions are a standard tool of the Washington press corps, which as a group is too caught up in its own self-importance and petty competition to understand it has become the cabin boy of the political class. In the name of supposedly informing the audience, Washington reporters are co-conspirators in an ongoing fraud. Here's what it looks like:

USA Today: "Mitt Romney is planning a bus tour ahead of the Republican national convention. A Romney campaign aide confirmed the bus trip to USA Today. The aide, who is not authorised to discuss the trip publicly, asked for anonymity because details have not yet been announced."

Oh, wait. They have too been announced. Just now. By the Romney campaign.

These are not whistleblowers being protected, or even insiders going out on a limb. The epidemic of blind quotes [when interviewees don't want to say anything on the record] is a standard way of giving a platform to officials speaking in an official capacity, yet with zero accountability. The practice is also supremely manipulative, giving the most banal information the allure of forbidden fruit.

At its worst, the game can allow the vice president of the United States to leak phony intelligence to the New York Times and later refer back to the leak as independent journalistic confirmation, leading to invasion and hundreds of thousands of deaths and a trillion dollars in squandered treasure.

On the plus side, the Times scooped everyone.

The Iraq disgrace aside, obscuring official sources might be understandable if this journalistic worst practice were in the service of earth-shaking news. It almost never is. Here are some blind quotes from just the last few days:

The Atlantic: "A former McCain staffer who saw the summary of Romney's tax data independently confirmed former Republican presidential nominee John McCain's account that there was nothing disqualifying in it, but said he was not authorised to provide more detail from the confidential report."

Associated Press: "The Democratic official would not comment on the exact language of the pro-gay marriage plank approved by the drafting committee. It was unclear if the party would call for any national action to legalise gay marriage . The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to speak publicly about the platform committee's decision."

Reuters: "Members of the Federal Trade Commission voted to approve a consent decree that will allow Google to settle the agency's investigation but admit no liability, said one of the sources, who was not authorised to speak on the record."

And here's the thing about epidemics: they spread. In recent days, anonymity was provided to sources in stories about investments, the courts, an NBA player trade, a shopping-centre sale in Sacramento, California and at least one huge development of historic significance: concern over Jimmy Fallon hosting the Oscars:

LA Times: "ABC has raised objections to having the late-night star from rival NBC play emcee on its Oscar broadcast, these people said, but the network has no authority to veto the choice of host. The show is put on by the Motion Picture Academy, and Tom Sherak initiated the discussions before his term as academy president ended on Tuesday, according to the people who were not authorised to speak publicly."

Congratulations, stewards of freedom, you have heroically served the public's right to know.

The blind quotes, though, are not even the worst of it. The New York Times recently revealed that reporters are not merely working on background, they negotiate after interviews what comments may be used and send them to sources for prepublication approval. The sources routinely edit those quotes before turning them back over to news organisations.

As media ethicist Edward Wasserman so aptly put it, "At this point you're no longer talking about an interview; you're talking about a press release ... And what happens is Washington becomes no different from Beijing, in terms of reporting what authorities want reported".

Once again, this turns out not to be some sort of rare practice confined to sleazy blogs. It is a sleazy practice embraced by the most venerable journalism institutions, desperate to feed on the scraps offered by official Washington, no matter how degrading and unscrupulous the transaction. One Washington Post reporter was caught sharing an entire draft of a story about Texas learning standards with university of Texas officials.

The backlash was swift. Embarrassed by the revelation, the Post issued updated policies on quote approval and draft-sharing, absolutely forbidding the practices. Absolutely and unequivocally. Except when the reporter and editor agree it's OK.

"We should not allow sources to change what was said in an original interview," said executive editor Marcus Brauchili in a memo, "although accuracy or the risk of losing an on-the-record quote from a crucial source may sometimes require it. A better and more acceptable alternative is to permit a source to add to a quotation and then explain that sequence to readers."

You tell 'em, Marcus. Take no prisoners.

Meanwhile, the National Journal and Bloomberg news followed the McClatchey Newspapers Washington bureau in instituting a real ban on quote sharing, as articulated by McClatchey bureau chief Jim Asher: "I make this commitment to our readers, and to our citizens: McClatchy journalists will report fairly and independently. We will not make deals with those in power, regardless of party or philosophy."

Yes, they got scooped on the Romney bus blockbuster. All they have now is their independence. And their dignity.


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Comments   

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+8 # fdawei 2012-08-04 22:42
Thank you, Bob Garfield..."Mea nwhile, the National Journal and Bloomberg news followed the McClatchey Newspapers Washington bureau in instituting a real ban on quote sharing, as articulated by McClatchey bureau chief Jim Asher: "I make this commitment to our readers, and to our citizens: McClatchey journalists will report fairly and independently. We will not make deals with those in power, regardless of party or philosophy."

Yes, they got scooped on the Romney bus blockbuster. All they have now is their independence. And their dignity."

The problem with this honesty is that the vast majority of Americans would much prefer the dubious, pornographic approach to "behind the scenes" salacious "scoops" than trust the honest and dignified journalism of the National Journal, Bloomberg and McClatchey news organizations.

The once-venerable news organizations such as WaPo and the NYT are no longer relevant, since they have simply become Washington's sycophants.
 
 
+4 # Majikman 2012-08-05 00:17
.."The problem with this honesty is that the vast majority of Americans would much prefer the dubious, pornographic approach to "behind the scenes" salacious "scoops" than trust the honest and dignified...."
Seriously????
That's the most contemptible slander and blame of the American people who are victims of corporate controlled news.
 
 
+12 # Hey There 2012-08-04 23:24
This is so true.This is illustrated by the current war on Postal Employees and service to the public waged by Issa, Lieberman, Collins, and other members of Congress intent on privatization of the Post Office with higher prices, lower wages and benefits for the workers with less of them to perform moving the mail.
The Bill HR2309 introduced by Issa proposes " To restore the financial solvency of the United States Postal Service and to ensure the efficient and affordable nationwide delivery of mail."
The USPS was solvent until it was slammed with HR6407 which mandated that the USPS fund 75 retiree health benefits in 10 at 5.5 Billion a year which helped the federal budget but wrecked havoc with Postal Finances which up until 2006 had been in the black. Issa omits this solution as it would interfere with his Bill which would eliminate 100,000 jobs,stop compensation for those over 65, put in place 2 authorities that could over ride union contracts,lower wages and benefits for the rest, close many of the smaller post offices, close 200+ distribution centers which will slow the mail. Yet Issa claims that all this needs to be done to save the post office. In short those in favor of his bill blame the workers and the public for a problem that Congress put in place as a first step to privatization.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-chx0j3_8IU
 
 
+4 # paulrevere 2012-08-05 15:09
People do not realize how special Postal Service is to a free society.

The managers of that system are OUR employees and responsible to US, WETHEPEOPLE.

They have a sworn duty to protect our correspondance with a chain of possession under the auspice of the US Constitution.

We can trust that should that chain be intercepted and/or broken, that their duty and loyalty come under the oversight of federal law.

When privatized, that all goes away and on into the greed for profit, subterfuge and hypocritical actions deemed necessary to pay those investors...BS I SAY!!
 
 
+5 # humanmancalvin 2012-08-05 02:48
A handful of reporters seem to go for the meat of a given story & ignore the unnamed fluff. Matt Taibi comes to mind in this context. It rile sme to no end to listen to the softballs lobbed by supposed fact finding journalists. I would eliminate all on Fox-Non_News personalities from journalistic consideration & in its place put entertainers or just plain unadulterated shills. I turn to the independent blogger as a news source more & more. Seems to be more Jimmie Olsens writing for these small blogs, digging up the dirt that the big guyd do not seem to have the cajones to touch.
 
 
+2 # Ralph Averill 2012-08-05 03:11
Nothing new. The Washington press corps has returned to pre-Watergate/V ietnam rules. The window dressing is a little different, but it's the old I'll scratch your back, you scratch mine routine. The difference is we now have blogs, and the Guardian.
 
 
+6 # RMDC 2012-08-05 05:26
Thanks. This is good. The state of "professional journalism" is as low as it can go. Mainstream media organizations are so cowardly that they hand their pages or air time to anyone with power and money. There is really almost no hard reporting.

International news is the worst. Mostly they just plagiarize US government or right wing think tank press releases. It is so easy now for politicians to spin the news that it makes reading or watching mainstream news worthless.

We truly live in a National Propaganda State. All of our information is managed. All of our opinions are constructed. Edward Bernays would be proud of the society he created.
 
 
+1 # dick 2012-08-05 07:07
Make that the NY-DC lap dogs.
 
 
0 # dick 2012-08-05 07:25
Pravda (USSR Communist Party Media)="Truth"= NYTimes op eds. Isvestia (USSR govt media)="news"=( white)Wash Post. WHY? It hasn't always been this way. Now there's no pravda in isvestia, and no isvestia in pravda. How do these purveyors of nothing newsworthy, like ANCBS, CoNN, even survive? Viewers DON'T WANT information, they want reassurance?
 
 
+5 # Doll 2012-08-05 08:00
McClatchy is an outlier in the MSM. I read their work all the time.

I read the above referenced article and was pleased that my high opinion of their work was verified.

They, and Rolling Stone, seem to be the last of the non-partisan news sources.

I, for one do not want partisan news: Right, left, or bi-partisan.
 
 
+3 # paulrevere 2012-08-05 15:03
So the First Amendment of the US Constitution specifically mentions 'THE PRESS'.

And the modern day psychophants and 'cabin boys' have turned and actually, through their actions in reporting made a pure and simple mockery of that hallowed mandate to 'be free'.

Wow, how do journalists live with their hypocrisy and that kind of overt shred of a document, the spirit and principles of which can be traced clear back to Ur?
 

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