Newsmakers Trade Access For Quotation Approval

Sep 18, 2012
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This past week, we spoke to writer Michael Lewis about his piece in the current issue of Vanity Fair about President Obama. We were not aware at the time that Lewis had agreed to have the White House approve the president's quotes prior to publication, part of the deal that allowed him extraordinary access to the president. The revelation that Lewis had agreed to quote approval to the White House fed into an ongoing media controversy about the practice, once verboten in journalism, but now many politicians and corporate leaders are now requiring quote approval before they'll agree to be interviewed.

David Carr had written about this in his latest column for The New York Times, and he joined us to talk about it.

Good morning.

DAVID CARR: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Remind people about the old rules, that someone you interviewed didn't have any sway over what you wrote.

CARR: Historically, journalism is built on a transaction, calling a source and you ask them a question, they answer it, you write it down as carefully as you can and should it be useful you stick it in the newspaper or on the radio broadcast and that's the end of that.

Now, frequently - and I don't know if it came from Hollywood or politics first - but the rules of engagement have changed, where people say, yes, I'll speak freely to you, but if you're going to use anything, just run it by me. That sounds so friendly, but it's not.

Most often what ends up being in conflict is not that they misspoke, but that they accidentally spoke the truth and they don't want to get caught out. And so they ask for we just want to round the edges a little bit and before you know it they'd completely changed the meaning of what was said.

MONTAGNE: You say in your column that soundbite journalism has caused subjects to behave defensively. And, in fact, you've pointed out that often a journalist will be writing things down loosely because you can only write so fast. And so there is room there for maybe a bit of sympathy for those who worry that they're going to be badly misquoted or taken out of context.

CARR: I've written a book and been in a movie and been covered extensively, and the amount of misquoting that goes on is breathtaking. And when we get into the issue of not you didn't get it right to the point where - instead what they're saying is we're not really comfortable with what was said there.

But in the instance of Mr. Lewis' story about President Obama, he got a lot for the agreement that he made. I'm not sure if he would've got this story if he didn't agree to that. And I would've been sad not to have been able not to read that story, 'cause I learned things about the president.

MONTAGNE: Well, though, when you get down to it, if the interview subject has a sort of veto power or editorial power over his or her quotes, is that still news?

CARR: Yeah, I think it's important to remember that probably less than 20 percent of the average story is composed of quotes and the narrative remains in the custody of the writer. I do think that the locus of control changes somewhat when you allow a source to either amend or take back what they have said. I don't think the people who are making history should be allowed to rewrite it.

MONTAGNE: David Carr is the cultural reporter and media columnist for The New York Times. His latest column is headlined, "The Puppetry of Quotation Approval." Thanks very much for joining us.

CARR: Oh, it was a pleasure.


MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.