Approved! How the ‘Quote Approval’ Debate Exposes Media Hypocrisy

Allow me to resolve the the recent debate over “quote approval” with a single word: email. Everyone needs to start doing interviews over email. Whether you’re a journalist or a spokesperson speaking to the media, you’re better off communicating questions, statements or inquiries via email.

By using it when they speak to sources, journalists force the person they’re talking to to go on the record. On the other hand, it gives interviewees a fair chance to think about their answers and put their best face forward. And now neither party can accuse the other of lying. Both are forced to be relatively honest.

Problem solved.

The way I see it, if you’re in PR and you don’t instruct your clients to insist upon email, you should probably be fired for negligence. Every time I see a stupid quote from a public figure, my first thought is: well, somebody was an idiot and answered the phone. (For this reason, I don’t answer my phone, and my voicemail instructs callers to email me. I tell my clients to do the same.) The risks of speaking extemporaneously are apparent the first time you wing it and promptly put your foot in your mouth.

Of course, I completely understand why journalists have long insisted on doing things on the phone, why they’d rather sit down over coffee. It’s not to observe the subject’s body language, to note the scene or convey to the reader the melodious cadence of the speaker’s voice. Let’s be frank: it’s because they hope the person will say something juicy or unguarded or embarrassing.

What people often forget is that for the parties involved, the media game is a vicious contest. Both sides see themselves as fighters circling, looking for a weakness, trying to get an advantage, trying to come out the winner. Reporters need big stories to get traffic and make a name for themselves. Subjects have a message for the public and they want to stick to their script. Money and status are at stake for both.

Anyone who faults Romney or Obama or any public figure for demanding quote approval is missing the point. The journalists were no abused weaklings here. They made a bargain for access to these newsworthy figures that they thought was in their favor—they’re only complaining because they got caught.

Boo hoo. In sports, as in life, losers tend to cry loudest about fouls.

Though I will say that it is interesting to hear journalistic watchdogs pretend that quote or story approval is something new, it isn’t. It really isn’t. For Christ sake, John D. Rockefeller often insisted on it—and got it. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that as the economics of the news has regressed to where it was in the early 20th century, so too have news practices. Yellow journalists were fine with quote approval, and I guess today’s yellow journalists are too.

That’s why The New York Times’s conspicuous decision to ban quote approval only after the recent uproar  is so disingenuous and pathetic. In fact, it’s the kind of “ethical behavior under duress” that reporters gleefully criticize when politicians, celebrities and brands get caught. It makes it very hard for me to see this decision as sincere, or to believe that the Times will enforce the policy.

I mean, how could the Times really be that against quote approval? It sure doesn’t seem to be all that opposed to the other kinds of fake news. Like the kind that comes from the service Help a Reporter Out.

Earlier this year, I did an experiment to prove that the popular “Help a Reporter Out” was just a factory for producing cheesy quotes from pseudo-experts—where journalists cavorted and bartered with “sources” to generate stories that would get lots of web traffic. The New York Times was implicated, and its response says it all.

It quietly issued a correction to its embarrassing trend piece, but made no policy changes and did not disclose any of the practices behind the problem. (Same goes for the other outlets involved: Reuters, ABC News, Today and countless blogs.) They had featured me prominently despite the fact that my expertise was completely made up. Nobody fact-checked, nobody even bothered to Google me (or they would have seen that I had written a book about media manipulation).

Future exposure to such deceit could have been prevented by a simple ban on the service. To date, no media outlet that I know of has taken such a stance. In fact, the Times has dug in and defended using HARO (even as it removed the quotes from its story). As their spokesman said as part of a statement to The Observer at the time: “We have no written guideline that would say specifically to verify a source like these online ‘experts,’” but that they assume it was covered as part of their general policy. Except it clearly isn’t.

The New York Times and many other blogs and media outlets continue to use HARO for the same reason they previously tolerated (and many will continue to tolerate) heavy-handed quote approval. Many reporters have figured out that being an adversary doesn’t generate as many clicks as being a collaborator. They don’t see their stories as vehicles for the truth but as page-view magnets—and it’s faster and easier to work with the people they write about to make sure they both get as much visibility as possible.

And that’s what quote approval is at its core: the media and media subjects conspiring to make the news that makes them the most money. In the age of the click, both want as many of them as as possible and are willing to collude to get a story that they can both promote. Both walk away winners.

Who loses? Well, readers. Because the news they is get is the fruit of this self-righteous but very poisoned tree.

Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of Trust Me I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator and a PR strategist for brands and writers. Approved! How the ‘Quote Approval’ Debate Exposes Media Hypocrisy