Permission to Quote

Repost from the old site.

We journalists are supposed to operate under something called ethics. They actually have courses on this stuff. It was with great dismay that I heard that a British paper had quoted a Clinton staffer as making some unflattering remarks about someone or other a while back. I forget the details, but it was pretty inflammatory and the woman got fired.

The staffer protested that she had not given permission to publish those remarks. The wicked reporter countered that she had never said not to publish them either.

Actually she had made the remarks, and then afterward said, hey, wait a minute, don’t quote me on this, that and whatnot. Quote me on all the rest. But etc etc etc is off the record. The scumbag journalist said, “Too bad, you needed to say off the record before you made the remarks, not afterward.”

As a journalist, I get emails from folks in the news. I do phone interviews with folks in the news. If I had my act together a bit more, I’d be doing face to face interviews with newsworthy folks.

It’s a principle of journalism that the interviewee has total control over their quotes. You go over the quotes, even show them a copy, and ask if it’s ok. Often they will try to rephrase this or that, or ask you to rewrite something, but that’s their prerogative. If you don’t own your own words or thoughts, what do you own?

An interviewee need not state prior that some quote is off the record. They can say it at any time, even after publication. I’ve had folks ask me to remove quotes after publication and I have actually done so. This is really a moral matter, and it’s important to live morally. It’s simply immoral to quote someone when they don’t want to be quoted. Real simple.

There may be some exceptions. If someone confesses to a crime or says something really inflammatory or admits that they did something that they really did in life, there’s not much harm in a confession. Depends on the newsworthiness of it.

If I heard John McCain say he didn’t vote for Bush at a party in 2000 and then he called me up afterward and asked me to retract, I probably would not. It was a party, not an interview and he’s quite a public figure. Whether he voted for Bush or not is a factual matter of his life, not some private thoughts of his that belong to his mind alone.

As you can see, things get tricky.

What I thought was horrible about the Clinton staffer incident above was that apparently the entire US media gleefully said that the journoslime had done the right thing. Saying afterward, “Hey, don’t quote me on that,” is too little too late, crowed the cavorting media goblins.

Man, that’s not the journalistic ethics I learned in school.

This shows why the media has popularity lower than the government or corporations. We don’t deserve any better. It’s amazing that 15% of the population doesn’t want to throttle us on sight.

The reasons? The increasingly competitive and corporate-driven nature of the media. The media has become more and more corporate and consolidated lately and family-owned firms have gone public starting in the 1970’s with increasing regularity. A family owned newspaper or book publishing business used to be satisfied with 4% margin. It had been 4% for decades and that was plenty to get them good and rich.

As firms went public, they became vehicles of shareholders and more importantly Wall Street investment houses. Wall Street in the past 25 years or so has started demanding higher and higher profits from publishing firms. 4% is for pikers. We want 15%. Not only that, but we demand 15% growth in profits every single year. For how long? For eternity.

This puts a lot of pressure on firms. The result has been a shedding of many to most decent titles at book publishing firms in favor of shlock, murder mysteries, romances, crappy ghosted bios, and other forms of book junk food. Editors have been fired in huge waves. Result? Books are more and more often poorly written and there are many more errors and typos than there used to be.

It’s the Wallmartization of books. Books, the last refuge of the intellectual, have been infected by the crapification of our corporatized modern world.

Newspapers are no exception. They’re getting crappier and crappier too. In most towns, there’s only one paper left, so why compete? A pile of fish wrapper called USA Today is now the model of the daily broadsheet. It’s modeled on terminal 15 year old’s with the attention span of a shrew on the forest floor.

In such a nasty, money-based world, getting the scoop is what it’s all about. There still is some competition left somehow in the biz, and you have to beat the other journoslime rags to the punch. Hence, “journalism ethics” becomes an oxymoron and reporters rank barely above serial killers in popularity.

On a related note, I am a member of a list that deals with Evolutionary Psychology. A particularly unhinged and ultra-reactionary member of the list (a very model for the increasingly fanatical and insane modern conservative movement) recently posted the contents of private emails between him and me to the list.

I wrote those mails to him with the unstated understanding that it was just between him and me. To publish or publicly publicize the contents of private mails is a violation of Netiquette, a violation of privacy and an immoral act. His viciousness exemplifies the viciousness of a conservative movement run amok with rightwing muggers and hitmen, incivility as a motif, and an underlying template of narcissism and sociopathy.

This post by the great blog Orcinus, The Political and the Personal , sums it up well.


Filed under Ethics, Journalism, Politics, Reposts From The Old Site, US Politics

2 responses to “Permission to Quote

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