If you’ve read a quote from an administration official in the news, there’s a good chance that the White House communications team had a chance to edit it first. West Wing Playbook takes a look at the White House's approach to crafting press coverage 👇
Close to deadline and with our editors giving us side-eye about filing late, we agreed.The practice allows the White House an extra measure of control as it tries to craft press coverage.At its best, quote approval allows sources to speak more candidly about their work. At its worst, it gives public officials a way to obfuscate or screen their own admissions and words.
The Biden White House isn’t the first to employ the practice. 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.But, as is often the case with the unwieldy White House press corps, there is a collective action problem. Reporters are reluctant to say no to using background with quote approval because it could put them at a disadvantage with their competitors. “The only way the press has the power to push back against this is if we all band together,” said the first reporter. At least one White House reporting team has been talking internally about reaching out to other outlets to push the Biden team to stop the practice. headtopics.com
“Have any reporters talked about mutinying?”the second reporter asked us. “If you start fomenting an insurrection, keep me updated.”Reached for comment, White House spokespersonMICHAEL GWINasked to go off the record.Gwin later texted a statement from press secretary
JEN PSAKI. "We would welcome any outlet banning the use of anonymous background quotes that attack people personally or speak to internal processes from people who don’t even work in the Administration,” she said. “At the same time, we make policy experts available in a range of formats to ensure context and substantive detail is available for stories. If outlets are not comfortable with that attribution for those officials they of course don’t need to utilize those voices."
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. headtopics.com
At times, news outlets have tried to fight back.The New York Timesin 2012 after one of its own reporters,JEREMY PETERS,wrote a storyabout 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.The White House team has “repeatedly objected to background interviews with quote approval” since Biden took office,
DANIELLE RHOADES HA, a Times spokesperson, wrote in an email to West Wing Playbook, adding that The Times “has succeeded at times in getting interviews put on the record.”In 2012, the Associated Pressalso told Poynterthat the outlet didn’t permit quote approval and that their reporters don’t allow sources to say, “I want those three sentences you want to use sent over to me to be put through my rinse cycle.” The AP’s headtopics.com
JULIE PACEtold West Wing Playbook that remains their policy. She noted that the Poynter article also said “that AP reporters can conduct interviews on background and then negotiate to get certain parts on the record.”The 2012 New York Times article on quote approval stirred debate, but Peters himself isn’t sure it changed much. In a phone call, he said that “after the story ran it didn’t take that long for me to notice that operatives were asking for quote approval once again.”
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