Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

How Washington officials bested the media

By Ari Fleischer, CNN Contributor
updated 12:28 PM EDT, Mon August 6, 2012
Ari Fleischer says quote approval started out as something with good intent but has now gone wrong.
Ari Fleischer says quote approval started out as something with good intent but has now gone wrong.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Former White House press secretary says balance of power dominated by officials
  • He says making reporters submit quotes in advance for approval goes too far
  • Ari Fleischer says practice emerged out of ongoing tug-of-war inside the Beltway

Editor's note: Ari Fleischer, a CNN contributor, was White House press secretary in the George W. Bush administration from 2001 to 2003 and is the president of Ari Fleischer Sports Communications Inc. Follow him on Twitter: @AriFleischer

(CNN) -- When I saw the story, my jaw dropped.

Has journalism deteriorated so badly that Barack Obama's campaign aides are allowed to send quotes to reporters that "come back redacted, stripped of colorful metaphors, colloquial language and anything even mildly provocative," as The New York Times reported.

It's called "quote approval," and it's quite a problem.

Ari Fleischer
Ari Fleischer

It's also, as the Times noted, not a practice limited to Team Obama.

"Quote approval is standard practice for the Obama campaign, used by many top strategists and almost all midlevel aides in Chicago and at the White House," the story reported. "It is also commonplace throughout Washington and on the campaign trail." Some Mitt Romney staffers are afforded the same privilege, the Times said.

Dan Rather: Quote approval a media sellout

Ten years ago when I was White House press secretary, before Twitter and Facebook, in an era when reporters used to pick up their phones to conduct interviews as opposed to e-mailing, I would have been laughed out of the briefing room if I tried to get quote approval for something I said.

Occasionally, I talked on background as a senior administration official, but no reporter would ever let me pick and choose which on-the-record quotes they could use nor would anyone let me edit or clean up a quote.

Grading Romney's overseas trip
Gibbs: Romney can go to Kinko's
Fistfights over jobs and Romney's taxes

My how things have changed -- and the change began, it's important to note -- toward the end of the second term of George W. Bush.

Peter Baker, another reporter at The New York Times who has covered the last three White Houses, told me in an (on-the-record) interview that quote approval evolved from something beneficial to a "pernicious practice to be avoided."

Like Prohibition, it began with good intent.

Reporters covering Bush's second term, under pressure from editors not to use unnamed sources in their stories, started asking their sources if a background quote, attributed to a senior aide, could instead be turned into an on-the-record quote, with the aide's name in print. I e-mailed last week with several former Bush staffers and many confirmed they engaged in that practice.

For a very limited number of the most senior aides, that made sense.

Let's say a reporter is talking to a knowledgeable aide at the National Security Council who won't speak for attribution, because their job is not to talk to the press. Their boss won't like it if they do, or their phone will ring off the hook with 20 other reporters who want to turn the aide into a press secretary. But the aide will talk to an occasional reporter because their conversation, often about complicated policy matters, may inform the reporter and lead to a more accurate, more nuanced story. But since the reporter can't quote the official by name, and editors don't want to use unnamed sources, what's a reporter to do?

So reporters began pushing back, persuading staffers to let one sentence be quoted by name. The sentence was e-mailed to the aide, and when permission was granted to use it, quote approval among the most senior aides got started.

Sunday's Media monitor

But pushback has now turned into quote approval for almost everyone, even when the story isn't nuanced or complicated, and that's where the problem begins. Reporters are easily acquiescing today to midlevel aides who seek quote approval.

These aides aren't talking to make certain a story is more nuanced or better informed. They're doing it because they want more control of the story or to clean up a sloppy quote -- and because reporters let them.

Baker called it an "effort to get more transparency but it's backfired. The town has found a convenient way to control the press," he said, referring to people throughout Washington and on the campaign trail.

As a former press secretary, I'm all for trying to control the press, but quote approval goes too far.

Ron Fournier, the editor-in-chief of the National Journal group, reportedly sent an e-mail to reporters who work for him declaring quote approval off limits. "Our policy and common sense dictate that we don't allow public officials to edit NJ coverage," he wrote.

The problem with quote approval is it's too easy. It turns the relationship between a source and a reporter entirely over to the source. And the practice has spread too far and wide. Too many staffers will speak only if their quotes are approved and too many reporters are happy to oblige.

The relationship between a source and the press will always resemble a tug-of-war. Since the early days of our republic, government officials and the media have clashed. It's part of the ongoing, generally healthy dynamic in our noisy democracy. Over time, the ground shifts and one party gains the upper hand, only to lose it back.

Of course, the media's focus on the trivial -- see coverage of Romney's trip to England -- makes sources fight even more for control, lest a sentence be misconstrued, exaggerated and hyperfocused.

But so long as reporters allow their sources quote approval, this round has been won by the sources.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ari Fleischer.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 7:44 AM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
updated 5:29 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Sun April 13, 2014
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
updated 3:06 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
updated 12:49 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
updated 5:28 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Simon Tisdall: Has John Kerry's recent track record left Russia's wily leader ever more convinced of U.S. weakness?
updated 12:40 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Mel Robbins says Nate Scimio deserves credit for acting bravely in a frightening attack and shouldn't be criticized for posting a selfie afterward
updated 2:39 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Dr. Mary Mulcahy says doctors who tell their patients the truth risk getting bad ratings from them
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Peggy Drexler says the married Rep. McAllister, caught on video making out with a staffer, won't get a pass from voters who elected him as a Christian conservative with family values
updated 7:43 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
David Frum says the president has failed to react strongly to crises in Iran, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela, encouraging others to act out
updated 4:57 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Eric Liu says Paul Ryan gets it very wrong: The U.S.'s problem is not a culture of poverty, it is a culture of wealth that is destroying the American value linking work and reward
updated 7:51 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Frida Ghitis writes: "We are still seeing the world mostly through men's eyes. We are still hearing it explained to us mostly by men."
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Chester Wisniewski says the Heartbleed bug shows how we're all tangled together, relying on each other for Internet security
updated 3:26 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Danny Cevallos says an Ohio school that suspended a little kid for pointing his finger at another kid and pretending to shoot shows the growth in "zero tolerance" policies at school run amok
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT