Politico: 'Reporters fume' at heavy-handed Biden administration news management

Despite the slavish devotion of much of the media, the Biden administration is generating resistance from reporters who cover it.  Politico's West Wing Playbook reports:

If you've read a quote from an administration official in a newspaper or a wire story recently, there's a good chance that the White House communications team had an opportunity to edit it first.

That's because the Biden White House frequently demands that interviews with administration officials be conducted on grounds known colloquially as "background with quote approval," according to five reporters who cover the White House for outlets other than POLITICO.

In practice, that means the information from an interview can be used in the story, but in order for the person's name to be attached to a quote, the reporter must transcribe the quotes they want and then send them to the communications team to approve, veto or edit them.

This is not exactly new:

Many reporters say it's reminiscent of the tightly controlled Obama White House. The Trump White House used it, too.

But reporters say Trump's team did so less frequently than Biden's team — which also used the tactic during the campaign — and a number of current White House reporters have become increasingly frustrated by what they see as its abuse. "The rule treats them like coddled Capitol Hill pages and that's not who they are or the protections they deserve," said one reporter.

"Every reporter I work with has encountered the same practice," said another.

It's one thing to check for accuracy (and spelling) when writing up an interview.  But to allow a source to "unsay" something is allowing sources to censor their coverage.

The nub of the problem lies in the practice of "background" interviews, in which subjects agree to be candid on the stipulation that they won't be quoted by name.  That can lead to anonymous sources, which also become a vehicle for fabricating quotes.

PETER BAKER, the chief White House correspondent for The New York Times, said he remembers the practice beginning with reporters going back to sources and asking if a blind quote could be moved on the record. "What started out as an effort by reporters to get more transparency, to get people on the record more, to use fewer blind quotes, then got taken by the White House, each successive White House, as a way of taking control of your story," he said.

"So instead of transparency, suddenly, the White House realized: 'Hey, this quote approval thing is a cool thing. We can now control what is in their stories by refusing to allow them use anything without our approval. And it's a pernicious, insidious, awful practice that reporters should resist." Baker conceded that he's no purist. He has agreed to quote approval before but believes reporters ought to push back more.

At times, news outlets have tried to fight back. The New York Times barred the practice in 2012 after one of its own reporters, JEREMY PETERS, wrote a story about how quote approval had become "standard practice for the Obama campaign, used by many top strategists and almost all midlevel aides in Chicago and at the White House."

"The practice risks giving readers a mistaken impression that we are ceding too much control over a story to our sources," the Times memo on the subject read. "In its most extreme form, it invites meddling by press aides and others that goes far beyond the traditional negotiations between reporter and source over the terms of an interview."

The Times told West Wing Playbook that the 2012 memo remains their policy but they declined to comment on how rigorously they enforce it or if their reporters have always followed it when dealing with the Biden White House.

Translation: We'll do it if it helps us scoop our competition.

The most interesting facet of the story is that the Biden team is being so heavy-handed.  I guess they have a lot of embarrassing things getting said that need revision or exclusion.  And that is no surprise.

Hat tip: Ed Lasky.

Photo credit: "Press Pig" by Peter Fluck and Roger Law, CC BY 2.0 license.

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