There are some things that you hope we don’t ever get around to importing. Last week, the New York Times delved into a particularly noxious — and increasingly common — process in the American political scene.
And it’s one the media has been complicit with.
More and more, campaign insiders in the American presidential campaign have been agreeing to be interviewed only under the strictest of provisos: they only grant interviews if the journalists involved agree to allow the interviewees the opportunity to edit their own comments before they are used in print or online.
In other words, regardless of what the interviewees say, their words can’t be used until they have a chance to edit the answers to questions into what they would have liked to have said.
It’s a cutthroat world, and various media outlets make particular deals in order to get access. More and more, those deals would not be acceptable to their readers. And perhaps that’s the kind of “sniff test” that media outlets should use before agreeing to tie their own hands.
It’s not a practice that takes place in Canadian politics and media — at least, if it is, it isn’t a practice that is common enough to be on the radar for Canadian media-watchers. But just as American-style attack ads have bled their way into Canadian election campaigns, there should be concern that the same kind of thing — re-editing the message with the tacit support of what’s supposed to be an impartial media — could start to occur here.
Now, that’s not to say politicians aren’t making diligent attempts to control the message now. Perhaps the most obvious example is the ever-more-common desire by both provincial and federal politicians to answer reporters’ questions by email. There are plenty of reasons the politicos want to do that: it lets them refine their comments and have many eyes — often, paid communications staff among them — winnow out anything that might be controversial or not “on message.”
The easiest way to deal with those email responses, of course, is to always specifically refer to the fact that answers to questions came by email. Then, readers can judge for themselves the value of the “interview.”
But sending the quotes you plan to use back to be “pre-edited” by the politicians and bureaucrats being interviewed? Well, that sounds altogether too cosy. How on Earth would you claim to readers that you put them first, when in fact the compass had turned to serving the interviewee first?
The only way to stop the creep northwards of quote-vetting? Even if an “exclusive” is being dangled in front of one outlet, the media has to be clear, unanimous and fully onside that the price being asked is far too high.
Here at The Telegram, we don’t do it and we won’t do it. For the health of the news business, and for the trust of readers and viewers, neither should anyone else.