The White House is demanding that reporters get approval from the communications team before publishing quotes from any administration official.
Prior approval of quotes is not unknown. The White House is demanding that interviews be conducted on “background with quote approval.” This is usually done on stories where an aide provides deep background to a story. But requiring prior approval to edit, approve, or disapprove a quote from an aide in any circumstance is nothing less than trying to manage the news.
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.
Reporters were little better than megaphones for the Obama White House. Their excuse was that they have to write something every day and they were constantly under deadline. Since they couldn’t get the story without prior approval of quotes, they acquiesced to being lapdogs for Obama.
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.
“Have any reporters talked about mutinying?” the second reporter asked us. “If you start fomenting an insurrection, keep me updated.”
The problem for news consumers is that many of these reporters don’t mind being told what to write. They enjoy being administration lap dogs. If they were serious about being real journalists, they would be up in arms about the practice. At the very least, they would go public with their concerns.
Instead, they take the quote rules as the cost of doing business at the White House.
West Wing Playbook must make a confession here. We have participated in such arrangements too. The other week, the White House asked for background with quote approval for an interview with White House communications director KATE BEDINGFIELD for a profile about speechwriter VINAY REDDY. Close to deadline and with our editors giving us side-eye about filing late, we agreed.
These people don’t deserve First Amendment protections, although they will have it if it ever becomes necessary. They certainly don’t deserve the title “journalist.” PR flacks have more integrity. It’s sickening to know that informing the people of what’s happening in the White House is left up to those who surrender their independence so willingly.