Members of the White House media pool are growing increasingly frustrated with the Biden administration’s apparently common practice of demanding to approve quotes before they are published by reporters.
Yes — demanding approval before publishing comments from administration officials is a thing, and the Biden administration is reportedly all over it.
This week, a Politico report revealed five separate White House reporters who work for other outlets and said they are frequently granted White House interviews only on the condition that they agree to what is known colloquially as “background with quote approval.”
The outlet explained that, in essence, the practice means an interview subject will only agree to be quoted in a story if a transcript of their comments is sent to a communications team to review prior to publishing.
Politico’s West Wing Playbook confessed that it had recently agreed to that very quote approval when pressed for time.
It is not unheard of for the White House to request such an arrangement; the Obama administration was known for it, while the Trump White House also utilized background with quote approval, albeit to a lesser degree (President Donald Trump himself was certainly never known for his hesitation to speak to reporters). The Biden camp also used the practice on the campaign trail.
“The practice allows the White House an extra measure of control as it tries to craft press coverage,” Politico explained. “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.”
While we can easily imagine that members of the White House media pool would be falling over themselves to help the White House craft media coverage, this doesn’t appear to be the way they want to go about it, and it’s entirely understandable.
One reporter told Politico “The rule treats them like coddled Capitol Hill pages and that’s not who they are or the protections they deserve.”
“Every reporter I work with has encountered the same practice,” another said.
Reporters are stuck between a rock and a hard place as President Joe Biden’s White House reportedly demands they agree to the practice. If they don’t agree, they face difficulty securing useful comments and feel pressure to remain competitive with other outlets.
It appears the only real way the media pool can push back is by working together to stand up to the White House’s demands.
“Have any reporters talked about mutinying?” one of the reporters asked Politico. “If you start fomenting an insurrection, keep me updated.”
While White House spokesman Michael Gwin asked to go off the record when contacted for comment (go figure), Biden’s press secretary Jen Psaki essentially said if reporters don’t want to agree to quote approval, well, they don’t have to interview administration officials.
“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 wrote in a statement Gwin gave to Politico.
“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.”
Ensuring “context and substantive detail is available for stories” is classic Psaki-speak for “we’re carefully curating the narrative,” and she’s essentially telling the media to just deal with it.
The New York Times and The Associated Press have both barred their reporters from agreeing to quote approval.
In a memo in 2012 after one of its own reporters covered the Obama White House’s affinity for the practice, The Times stated it risked “giving readers a mistaken impression that we are ceding too much control over a story to our sources” and invited “meddling by press aids.”
While the newspaper confirmed to Politico that the 2012 memo banning the practice remains their policy, they declined to comment on to what extent it is enforced or whether reporters have ever made such an agreement with the Biden White House, interestingly enough.
A spokesperson for The Times did say the Biden administration has “repeatedly objected to background interviews with quote approval” since the president began his term. They have, however, “succeeded at times in getting interviews put on the record.”
Oh, well. There have been a few times that members of the Biden administration have agreed to make comments to a reporter without agreeing to put every word they uttered through a spin cycle before agreeing to have their words published in the free press.
Folks … this is grim. This is already an administration that vowed transparency and has given us very little. President Biden broke and then far exceeded a 100-year record for how long a president has gone without giving a solo news conference. The White House literally edited an official transcript of his comments when he finally ended this opaque streak to cover for an embarrassing gaffe.
Psaki has become known for evading questions and is already set to step down when her first year is up. She even recently said she didn’t want Biden talking to reporters.
While making the surprising admission to David Axelrod on his podcast last week, Psaki claimed Biden takes questions from reporters “nearly every day.”
“That is not something we recommend,” she then admitted. “In fact, a lot of times we say ‘Don’t take questions. But he’s going to do what he wants to do because he’s the president of the United States.”
Biden doesn’t seem to think he has this much freedom, however, as he has lamented he was “really gonna be in trouble” if he continued to talk to reporters during one instance of being made available to them.
All the while, reporters on the ground tasked with following and covering the administration can only get interviews if they agree they won’t publish a word without clearing it with the communications team?
How can we possibly trust anything we read about the administration when we know it’s simply common practice for the administration to approve what ends up getting published?
No. No way. This is absolutely not OK, not in these United States. Heck, at least even establishment media reporters are getting fed up — but is anyone actually going to do anything about this shameful evasion of presidential transparency?
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