March 14, 2003

Covering the White House

Atrios spots something very interesting as the Washington Post editors respond to the problems its reporters have had in covering the Bush Administration by stepping in to cut its reporters off at the knees.

Have the Post editors forgotten that they are supposed to help their reporters cover the news, not make their reporters' lives more difficult?


Eschaton: The Blame Game

Jill Dutt, one of the editors at the Washington Post, writes to Medianews regarding Jonathan Weisman's letter:


In case Jonathan Weisman's notes have caused any confusion about The Post's policy on quotations, let me describe it.

Reporters are not allowed to change a quote once it's been uttered. Anything appearing within quotation marks and published in The Post must be a verbatim rendering of what a source said. We do allow reporters, on occasion, to conduct background interviews with the understanding that if they want to quote the source, they check the quote. Reporters are supposed to get approval from an editor in advance of making an agreement to read back quotes.


While poor Mr. Weisman has to backtrack to try and save his probably alread-severed neck:


From JONATHAN WEISMAN, Economics Writer, Washington Post: Subject -- A follow-up. Given the response to my initial letter, I feel compelled to send a follow-up explaining what happened after my run-in with the White House press office over this single quotation. I was (and am) new to the Post. After the flap, I went to my editor, the assistant managing editor for financial news, Jill Dutt, to apprise her of the situation. Understandably, she was not pleased that even two words "the purest" appeared in the paper when they were not actually uttered by the interviewee. It is quite explicitly Post policy not to construct quotes in any way. Quotation marks are sacrosanct; they denote to readers the exact words uttered by a source.

That was the first quotation negotiation that I engaged in with the White House and it was and will be the last. And no, I have received no comment from the White House since my first letter on this subject.


Are we to really believe that Weisman was just a poor rookie duped into submission by the White House, which otherwise never does these things? If so, then the purpose, tone, and content in his original letter were completely at odds with this. He said:


This is a bit of a confession as well as an appeal to the White House and my fellow reporters to rethink the way journalism is practiced these days.
...

The catch was this: The interview would be off the record. Any quotes I wanted to put into the newspaper would have to be e-mailed to the press office. If approved, the quotation could be attributed to a White House official. (This has become fairly standard practice.)

...

I think it is time for all of us to reconsider the way we cover the White House. If administration officials want to speak off the record, they are off the record. If they are on background as an administration official, I suppose that's the best we can expect. But the notion that reporters are routinely submitting quotations for approval, and allowing those quotes to be manipulated to get that approval, strikes me as a step beyond business as usual.



Now, if he actually gone to his editor after the "flap" as he claimed (which flap isn't quite clear) and she told him that this shouldn't happen, then one would suspect he would have walked away knowing he got played and thinking that it wasn't a problem. Clearly, in his first letter, he thinks it is a serious and widespread problem - standard practice, in fact.


Some other White House reporters should come forward and corroborate what this guy has claimed. If not, he may have just finished his career before he started it. Shame on all of you who don't.

Posted by DeLong at March 14, 2003 09:47 PM | TrackBack

Comments

Excellent!! I sincerely hope you immediately forward your post (or at least, its substance) to letters at the media news/poynter page: with your reputation, they'll print it -- and it really needs to be said to show support for the rookie as well as to question the practice.

By the way, the wash post being frozen out of last press conference should produce the following:

an insistence by media organizations that they be able to ask questions from the floor at pres. press conferences

an agreement that at the next pres. press conference, the first question should be adressed to the Post, and if not it should be given to the Post by whatever reporter/lackey is selected. Let's ritualize this: The Post should inherit permanent first question status, as s tribute to Bush's XANAX news conference of last week. (Such a deferral and question would be the most notable ocurrence at a pres. press conference since Rather/Nixon)

a topic for the next campaign should be how often press conferences are held, and whether they will allow non-scripted participation of reporters.

Without getting into hermeneutics here, the establishment press must recognize that its passive acceptance of lapdog status violates the most basic principles of Anglo-American conceptions of self-governance of say, the past 350 years (if not longer).

Posted by: bill on March 15, 2003 08:41 AM

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We report, you decide....
Blah....

Posted by: jd on March 15, 2003 09:48 AM

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We will need a press summit of a coalition of the willing, not to include Australia or Bulgaria.

There I guess we can attend a demonstration for the UNwilling of a precision guided civilian sparing 18,000 pound bomb. Reported dutifully.

Posted by: rm on March 15, 2003 10:08 AM

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I'm not surprised about Weisman. A friend of mine had an e-mail exchange with Weisman on the occasion of the very Glenn Hubbard article in which he apparently manufactured that quote.

This friend of mine took Weisman to task for the substance of that article, which was essentially a puff piece that made Hubbard out to be a straight shooter just trying to bring a little economic rationality into an otherwise irrational budget process.

In response to an allegation that he had unfairly quoted Krugman's conclusion without providing any indication that Krugman had an argument to back up that conclusion, Weisman argued that you couldn't blame his employers for not giving one of their competitor's (i.e. Krugman) more ink! Apparently the Post has budgeted just enough ink to make Krugman look like a doctrinaire ideologue but not enough to let him even begin to explain his position! Oh yes, they have also budgeted anough ink to allow others in the same article to say that Krugman should be punished for his conclusion -- but, again, not quite enough to allow Krugman to back that conclusion up. Pathetic and unethical!

Posted by: The Fool on March 15, 2003 02:51 PM

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Not to quarrel with your main thesis, I don't think the lad's career is in ruins. A blot on the copybook, maybe, but I spent my youth in daily journalism, back in the pleistocene, and I can finger a couple of grand pooh-bahs today who, if the rule of ruin applied, would be scraping gum off the bottom of bus seats. I name no name, but any other geezer with my resume could do the same (maybe the same names, maybe different).

Posted by: jda on March 15, 2003 03:10 PM

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"In response to an allegation that he had unfairly quoted Krugman's conclusion without providing any indication that Krugman had an argument to back up that conclusion, Weisman argued that you couldn't blame his employers for not giving one of their competitor's (i.e. Krugman) more ink!"

What Rubbish.
Thanks to The Fool.

Posted by: jp on March 15, 2003 03:22 PM

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Bush not all that 'responsible' for the current economy...

http://www.nytimes.com/2003/03/16/business/yourmoney/16VIEW.html

Any comments?

Posted by: Bram on March 15, 2003 09:30 PM

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In general, the executive branch doesn't have much affect on the current cyclical position of the economy, as far as I can understand.

BTW, was anyone else struck by the fact that Weisman implies that the rationale behind the abolition of double taxation of dividends is macroeconomic? "Since the profile focused on Hubbard's efforts to translate relatively arcane macroeconomic theory into public policy, the quote I wanted referenced the president's effort to end the double taxation of dividends." Or am I misunderstanding the issue of double dividend taxation or misinterpreting Weisman here? I don't mean to nitpick, but that just sorta struck me as odd.

Posted by: Julian Elson on March 15, 2003 10:54 PM

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Though I agree with the main point that it's kinda creepy that the White House press office has the ability to put words in the mouth of anyone in the government that's interviewed...

Posted by: Julian Elson on March 15, 2003 10:56 PM

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I have always thought that permitting politicians and other policy-makers to make "off-the-record" statements is an anti-democratic practice. Democracy requires not so much full disclosure as truthful disclosure, and that can best be guaranteed by reading politicians their Miranda rights: anything you say may be used against you.

Posted by: andres on March 15, 2003 11:27 PM

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James Dow 36,000 Glassman says the Administration is not responsible for any economic problems ever, as long as the Administration is compassionately Republican. So, I guess it has to be so. More more more tax cut cuts. Social Security, Medicare, free school lunches, who needs em.

The rationale used for the stock dividend tax cut is macroeconomic stimulus from and end of dread double taxation. Of course, the double taxation is more like one and a quarter taxation. Oh well, cut away.

Posted by: jd on March 16, 2003 08:00 AM

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This is an Administration telling older men and women in Florida, the dividend tax cut is for YOU. Of course, older people rely on interest payments or tax sheltered retirement accounts far far far more than on taxable stock dividends, save for the richest people, but who cares about the truth in the Administration? Much much of the press should be ashamed of the sycphantic reporting.

Posted by: jd on March 16, 2003 09:32 AM

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I seem to remember that the UK's Guardian and Independent boycotted official "lobby system" briefings over a similar issue. But I doubt that anyone among the US press will do the same, mainly thanks to the system of institutionalised gutlessness which goes by the name of "ethics". The principle that "quotation marks are sacrosanct" for verbatim quotes, seems to me to be about as silly a conflation of a style guide with Holy Writ as one could imagine.

Posted by: dsquared on March 16, 2003 11:29 PM

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Bram-

Every now and then I get into a discussion for which the person with whom I'm speaking tries to mitigate the effect of the president by saying that "The president doesn't control the economy anyway."

This is true.

The president is, however, responsible for proposing the budget. The budget is around a fifth (let's call it 2 trillion) or the overall economy (we'll call it 10 trillion). The world economy is perhaps 40 trillion.

The budget is modified as it goes through congress, but usually not by much (does anybody know a website that tracks quantitatively changes from president to congress to presidential signatues for federal budgets?). The president then can sign it, send it back, shut down government, or what have you.

When formulating the budget, revenue is forcast from the prior year. Decisions are made in the current year. Effects are felt perhaps a year later.

The 2 trillion dollar budget includes many non-discretionary items.

So maybe the president has some influence over most of the budget, and a lot of influence over the rest. The budget cycle makes policy ineffective in the short term, but that short term is shorter than 2 years. And when we're dealing with numbers as large as 20% of a really big number (10 trillion) which is a full quarter of EVERYTHING, then I think it's fair to place heavy responsibility with the president - even after two years.

One of the gloomier aspects of cheering for republican administrations is that GDP growth has been slightly better for non-republican presidents...

http://www.bea.doc.gov/bea/dn/nipaweb/TableViewFixed.asp#Mid

even though non-republican presidents tend to spend less than they take in revenues...

http://www.cbo.gov/showdoc.cfm?index=2124&sequence=0

What a shame. One way to resolve the problem is by assigning blame to unfriendly Federal Reserve chairmen, unfriendly senators, etc. Another way is by pretending that cycles are rather arbitrary - I have heard the late 90s described as "The Reagan Boom." (I think that was Rush Limbaugh.) Nixon inherited his problems, Clinton inherited his victories, Bush I... uuuh... dunno, Bush II inherited a bubble, etc.

(The honest middle ground is to make wise policy and then stand by it. There's a lot to be said for cutting taxes and spending, so long as there's long-term balance; there's a lot to be said for various forms of intervention, so long as there's a long-term balance.)

Cheers!
Saam Barrager

Posted by: Saam Barrager on March 17, 2003 12:17 PM

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At the risk of going out on a limb, I will repeat an argument I made at a much earlier discussion that the constitution needs to be amended so that the President can't get his paws on fiscal policy, and the ability of Congress to do so should be restrained.

Three times in the past forty years (four if Bob Dole had made it in 1996), U.S. presidents have resorted to irresponsible tax cuts knowing that Congress would be unable/unwilling to make corresponding spending cuts. In the two cases after LBJ's policy, these huge cuts were made due to a combination of (a) presidential candidate bribing the electorate to vote for him, (b) ideological commitment to reduce government, even if that commitment was not shared by Congress. Either way, the result is at best a prolonged period of fiscal retrenchment (e.g. Clinton) or at worst potential future government bankruptcy (i.e., inflation).

In order to prevent such future occurrences, the Treasury needs to be made a semi-independent agency similar to the Federal Reserve. To maintain accountability, the Treasury Board members can be popularly elected, but only one member every four years or so. An independent Treasury would not have power over spending bills but would be able to veto appropriations bills (instead of the President) and even levy its own taxes if taxes levied by Congress are insufficient to maintain long-term fiscal sustainability.

This is just a bare fraction of an outline of a semi-independent Treasury, but I think it's becoming clear that it's desperately needed in order to shield long-term fiscal policy from the vagaries of individual elections.

Posted by: andres on March 18, 2003 04:02 PM

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you must make tax cuts to jumpstart the economy, it only makes sence.

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