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Goodbye, journalism

by John Brummett | July 18, 2012 at 5:00 a.m.

The New York Times reports that it and other leading national news organizations now routinely type quotes from their interviews with top officials of the presidential campaigns, then submit these texts to the campaigns.

Then they publish the attributed quotes, if at all, only in the edited forms in which the campaigns return them.

Reporters get access to on-the-record information from highly placed sources. Campaign honchos get assurances they can escape embarrassment for something they said but wish they hadn’t.

So let us today ponder the demise of legendary American journalism.

Let us behold the rise in its place of official-speak and its obliging stenography.

Let us do that with quaintly independent commentary.

Here is the historic purpose and essence of political journalism as practiced by a constitutionally empowered free press in a democratic republic: It has been to pursue important public truths independently, meaning outside the self-serving official channels.

It has been to serve the reader and voter, not the newsmaker.

The goal of higher-quality political journalism has been to enrich the narrative with flavorful and revelatory detail.

Nothing is more flavorful or revelatory—more real—than spontaneity. That means, among other things, the instinctive utterances that a politician or political operative might let slip.

Ideally, all of this is supposed to take place as an ongoing struggle between politicians trying to control their messages and the independent journalists trying to pry out more objective and fully contextual messages.

The alleged misquote, the charge that a comment was “taken out of context,” the angling for an ambush interview—these are proud and glorious staples of the struggle.

There is no manual, nor is there any binding code of professional conduct. Journalism isn’t a profession. It’s a constitutional exercise. Or it used to be.

In recent decades a growing premium has been placed in official Washington on “access.” That refers to the ability of reporters to penetrate the ever-deepening government fortress and speak with a government official.

It is as if the direct interaction is something so rarefied as to approximate an audience with the pope.

Routinely, government officials conduct “briefings” for obliging gaggles of reporters who have agreed en masse not to quote the taxpayer employee by name.

Reporters need to know what the official knows, or some of what the official knows, so they can impart that information generally. The official thinks he needs to be cloaked in anonymity in order to speak with a semblance of freedom, meaning fact and truth.

But this latest development takes the nation’s politics and media into new territory where official filtering is the accepted practice.

It is a new territory where the power of information is systematically transferred from those who formerly were independent—indeed a “fourth estate”—to those wholly official, wholly partisan and wholly possessed of vested interests.

It is a new territory in which the person whom the reporter is interviewing also will function as the reporter’s editor.

It is a new territory in which words placed between quotation marks in the newspaper need not be the actual words spoken by the person to whom the quote is attributed.

So it’s a lie.

The readers and voters get less spontaneity, less detail, less flavor, a sterilized narrative and a lesser increment of fact and truth with which to make democracy’s vital decisions.

It’s as if 60 Minutes sent the digital recording of its on-camera interview with a news subject to that news subject with a note saying, “Look this over and put on the cutting-room floor anything you don’t want us to show you saying.”

It’s the same thing, almost precisely.

It’s a free press that is voluntarily handing over its liberty.

It needs to stop.

It is one thing, and an entirely different and valuable thing, for political reporters to develop good sources and avail themselves of inside information while protecting those sources and finding a way to impart the inside information generally and credibly.

But to leverage an on-the-record interview with a campaign manager only by ceding real spontaneous truth to the whitewashing of that campaign manager—on the premise that the reporter couldn’t have gotten anything at all, filtered or unfiltered, otherwise—amounts to journalistic prostitution.

It surely seldom if ever produces information valuable enough to be deemed remotely worthy of the compromise.

We’re better off not knowing the brilliant insights of that campaign manager than letting him—or anybody—write his own news.

Or we could just put Barack Obama’s and Mitt Romney’s bylines on the articles about them.

John Brummett is a regular columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at jbrummett@arkansasonline.com and read his blog at brummett.arkansasonline.com.

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