Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

How Washington officials bested the media

By Ari Fleischer, CNN Contributor
updated 12:28 PM EDT, Mon August 6, 2012
Ari Fleischer says quote approval started out as something with good intent but has now gone wrong.
Ari Fleischer says quote approval started out as something with good intent but has now gone wrong.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Former White House press secretary says balance of power dominated by officials
  • He says making reporters submit quotes in advance for approval goes too far
  • Ari Fleischer says practice emerged out of ongoing tug-of-war inside the Beltway

Editor's note: Ari Fleischer, a CNN contributor, was White House press secretary in the George W. Bush administration from 2001 to 2003 and is the president of Ari Fleischer Sports Communications Inc. Follow him on Twitter: @AriFleischer

(CNN) -- When I saw the story, my jaw dropped.

Has journalism deteriorated so badly that Barack Obama's campaign aides are allowed to send quotes to reporters that "come back redacted, stripped of colorful metaphors, colloquial language and anything even mildly provocative," as The New York Times reported.

It's called "quote approval," and it's quite a problem.

Ari Fleischer
Ari Fleischer

It's also, as the Times noted, not a practice limited to Team Obama.

"Quote approval is standard practice for the Obama campaign, used by many top strategists and almost all midlevel aides in Chicago and at the White House," the story reported. "It is also commonplace throughout Washington and on the campaign trail." Some Mitt Romney staffers are afforded the same privilege, the Times said.

Dan Rather: Quote approval a media sellout

Ten years ago when I was White House press secretary, before Twitter and Facebook, in an era when reporters used to pick up their phones to conduct interviews as opposed to e-mailing, I would have been laughed out of the briefing room if I tried to get quote approval for something I said.

Occasionally, I talked on background as a senior administration official, but no reporter would ever let me pick and choose which on-the-record quotes they could use nor would anyone let me edit or clean up a quote.

Grading Romney's overseas trip
Gibbs: Romney can go to Kinko's
Fistfights over jobs and Romney's taxes

My how things have changed -- and the change began, it's important to note -- toward the end of the second term of George W. Bush.

Peter Baker, another reporter at The New York Times who has covered the last three White Houses, told me in an (on-the-record) interview that quote approval evolved from something beneficial to a "pernicious practice to be avoided."

Like Prohibition, it began with good intent.

Reporters covering Bush's second term, under pressure from editors not to use unnamed sources in their stories, started asking their sources if a background quote, attributed to a senior aide, could instead be turned into an on-the-record quote, with the aide's name in print. I e-mailed last week with several former Bush staffers and many confirmed they engaged in that practice.

For a very limited number of the most senior aides, that made sense.

Let's say a reporter is talking to a knowledgeable aide at the National Security Council who won't speak for attribution, because their job is not to talk to the press. Their boss won't like it if they do, or their phone will ring off the hook with 20 other reporters who want to turn the aide into a press secretary. But the aide will talk to an occasional reporter because their conversation, often about complicated policy matters, may inform the reporter and lead to a more accurate, more nuanced story. But since the reporter can't quote the official by name, and editors don't want to use unnamed sources, what's a reporter to do?

So reporters began pushing back, persuading staffers to let one sentence be quoted by name. The sentence was e-mailed to the aide, and when permission was granted to use it, quote approval among the most senior aides got started.

Sunday's Media monitor

But pushback has now turned into quote approval for almost everyone, even when the story isn't nuanced or complicated, and that's where the problem begins. Reporters are easily acquiescing today to midlevel aides who seek quote approval.

These aides aren't talking to make certain a story is more nuanced or better informed. They're doing it because they want more control of the story or to clean up a sloppy quote -- and because reporters let them.

Baker called it an "effort to get more transparency but it's backfired. The town has found a convenient way to control the press," he said, referring to people throughout Washington and on the campaign trail.

As a former press secretary, I'm all for trying to control the press, but quote approval goes too far.

Ron Fournier, the editor-in-chief of the National Journal group, reportedly sent an e-mail to reporters who work for him declaring quote approval off limits. "Our policy and common sense dictate that we don't allow public officials to edit NJ coverage," he wrote.

The problem with quote approval is it's too easy. It turns the relationship between a source and a reporter entirely over to the source. And the practice has spread too far and wide. Too many staffers will speak only if their quotes are approved and too many reporters are happy to oblige.

The relationship between a source and the press will always resemble a tug-of-war. Since the early days of our republic, government officials and the media have clashed. It's part of the ongoing, generally healthy dynamic in our noisy democracy. Over time, the ground shifts and one party gains the upper hand, only to lose it back.

Of course, the media's focus on the trivial -- see coverage of Romney's trip to England -- makes sources fight even more for control, lest a sentence be misconstrued, exaggerated and hyperfocused.

But so long as reporters allow their sources quote approval, this round has been won by the sources.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ari Fleischer.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:24 PM EDT, Sat September 20, 2014
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
updated 7:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
updated 5:47 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
updated 11:44 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
updated 11:01 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
updated 9:57 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
updated 11:47 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT