JEREMY W. PETERS
The quotations come back redacted,stripped of colourful metaphors,colloquial language and anything even mildly provocative.
They are sent by e-mail from the Obama headquarters in Chicago to reporters who have interviewed campaign officials under one major condition: the press office has veto power over what statements can be quoted and attributed by name.
Most reporters,desperate to pick the brains of the presidents top strategists,grudgingly agree. After the interviews,they review their notes,check their tape recorders and send in the juiciest sound bites for review.
The verdict from the campaign is often no,Barack Obama does not approve this message.
The push and pull over what is on the record is one of journalisms perennial battles.
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 almost anyone other than spokesmen who are paid to be quoted. (And sometimes it applies even to them.) It is also commonplace throughout Washington and on the campaign trail.
The Romney campaign insists that journalists interviewing any of Mitt Romneys five sons agree to use only quotations that are approved by the press office.
Jim Messina,the Obama campaign manager,can be foul-mouthed. But readers would not know it because he deletes the curse words before approving his quotes. Brevity is not a strong suit of David Plouffe,a senior White House adviser. So he tightens up his sentences before giving them the OK. Stuart Stevens,the senior Romney strategist,is fond of disparaging political opponents by quoting authors like Walt Whitman and referring to historical figures like H. R. Haldeman,Richard Nixons chief of staff. But such clever lines later rarely make it past Stevens.
From Capitol Hill to the Treasury Department,interviews granted only with quote approval have become the default position. Those officials who dare to speak out of school,but fearful of making the slightest off-message remark,shroud even the most innocuous and anodyne quotations in anonymity by insisting they be referred to as a top Democrat or a Republican strategist.
It is a double-edged sword for journalists,who are getting the on-the-record quotes they have long asked for,but losing much of the spontaneity and authenticity in their interviews.