"You Can’t Quote Me!"

In the 1970s, I spent a few nice months as a reporter for a small New England daily newspaper. I loved it. Though I covered outlying school boards and town council meetings during the evenings, daytimes were devoted to feature stories. I wrote about county fairs, parks, and people. This, I thought, would be my career.

At the same time, though, I was learning things that would soon drive me away from journalism.

The business, I came to understand, was corrupt. Unless I was willing to be part of the corruption, I would have to find another career. The problem was cronyism and money, of course.

Those who didn’t matter, who weren’t connected to power in the community or to advertising money, could feel all the weight of the press. Those who did matter? Not only were they treated with kid gloves but they had what amounted to veto power over stories concerning them. I was informed quite bluntly, for example, that I was never to quote anyone of importance without calling them and confirming the quote with them–not even if they had been speaking in a public forum.

A couple of times, I had to change my stories when confirmation was refused–even though the quote was acknowledged as accurate.

In today’s New York Times is a story telling me little has changed. Oh, I knew that: reporters are so protective of their “access” that they will bend themselves into pretzels rather than lose it.

“We don’t like the practice,” said Dean Baquet, managing editor for news at The New York Times. “We encourage our reporters to push back. Unfortunately this practice is becoming increasingly common, and maybe we have to push back harder.”

Journalists clearly know this is wrong, but they do it anyway. Their own careers are more important than professional responsibilities.

It has been that way for a long time, and isn’t likely to change now.

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