President Obama frequently claims that he’s leading “the most transparent administration in history,” as he asserted last February during a Google Plus “Fireside” Hangout.
But that self-administered pat on the back is belied by The Washington Post’s recent account of how the president’s spin doctors allegedly tried to rewrite quotes from reporter Barton Gellman’s interview with the National Security Agency’s chief compliance officer. The interview was conducted for Gellman’s blockbuster story on the NSA’s persistent unauthorized surveillance since 2008 of thousands of Americans’ phone calls and emails, and the super-secret agency’s apparent policy of covering up its improper domestic spying.
At a time when Obama communications specialists seem to have grown accustomed to attempting to make reporters accessories to White House message-control in return for granting access to policymakers, the Post stiffened its spine and drew a line in the sand—a stand on principle that is generally being applauded by other news outlets that operate in Washington. New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson, for one, praised her competitor for refusing to go along with the NSA’s request that a self-justifying prepared statement be substituted for a pointed interview about the agency’s mistakes.
"The Post has made the right decision, based on its readers’ vital interest in getting accurate and full information,” Abramson wrote in an email. “Quoting an NSA official by name from on-the-record comments made during an interview with the Post gives readers the information they need to assess the information, far more than a generic statement prepared for him by the White House."
In a highly unusual lifting of the veil on journalistic sausage-making, the Post informed readers—under the provocative headline “An NSA interview, rewritten”—that “the Obama administration referred all questions for this article to John DeLong, the NSA’s director of compliance, who answered questions freely in a 90-minute interview. DeLong and members of the NSA communications staff said he could be quoted ‘by name and title’ on some of his answers after an unspecified internal review. The Post said it would not permit the editing of quotes. Two days later, White House and NSA spokesmen said that none of DeLong’s comments could be quoted on the record and sent instead a prepared statement in his name. The Post declines to accept the substitute language as quotations from DeLong.”
“In my experience with this White House, it started in 2009,” said Michael Scherer, Time magazine’s Washington bureau chief.
Indeed, in one of the charmingly byzantine folkways of journalism in the nation’s capital, the Post opted not to quote DeLong by name. But Gellman’s story—which was based largely on top-secret documents provided by fugitive former NSA contractor Edward Snowden—included extensive comments from someone identified as “a senior NSA official.”
On Thursday night a White House spokeswoman declined to comment publicly on the Post’s version of events. Former Post staffer Gellman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and senior fellow at the Century Foundation, offered further details of his interactions with Obama administration officials.
Gellman, who stressed that he was speaking for himself, not the Post, told me that he initially agreed to allow DeLong to review his quotes—an arrangement he normally doesn’t accept—“because the material was highly classified and because I understood that he was going to review quotes for accuracy, to make sure I had the context right.” He added: “I blame myself for not nailing down in absolute lawyerly terms what the ground rules were.”
After the recorded interview was transcribed, Gellman said he sent an NSA communications officer a 1,200-word memo containing around 20 different quotes from DeLong. “They approved zero of those,” he said. “To be absolutely precise, they said ‘you can’t use any of the quotes.’ ”
In a subsequent conversation with Caitlin Hayden, a White House press officer specializing in national security, Gellman said he was encouraged to try sending additional quotes that might prove more acceptable to DeLong’s media minders, “but I started feeling that this was going in the wrong direction.”
“I sent an email that morning to NSA communications saying ‘I’m not going to let you rewrite any of the quotes. I’m not going to let you choose just one or two in order to control what goes in the story.’ That wasn’t going to work for me.”
Gellman said it is always the job of the journalist writing the story, not the source being interviewed—or, for that matter, the source’s employer—to select quotes and decide how to use them in print. “I have told them in writing now that I’m not going to participate in any more interviews with quote approval.”
“I’d love it if you included that I’m not looking for a war with the White House,” Gellman told me. “I’m looking for them to stay on their side of the fence, and I’ll stay on my side.”
Gellman’s position was seconded by other journalists, including Michael Scherer, chief of Time magazine’s Washington bureau, and Kevin Klose, a former Washington Post foreign correspondent and chief executive of National Public Radio, currently a professor of journalism at the University of Maryland.
“A quote is a quote,” Klose said, “and when a reporter has an agreement that ‘I can quote you,’ and somebody comes back who wasn’t present during the interview and bigfoots the agreement, sure they can try it. But it’s like what [Nixon attorney general John] Mitchell tried to do on the Pentagon Papers. It’s prior restraint, and this is, in effect, a version of that.”
Scherer—who covered the White House during Obama’s first term after traveling on the campaign trail with Obama’s much more accessible and quotable Republican opponent, John McCain—said the practice of officials demanding that their on-the-record quotes be cleared started early. “In my experience with this White House, it started in 2009, and it kind of became standard operating procedure,” Scherer told me, adding that he nonetheless received plenty of access and managed to do a great deal of useful reporting on a background, not-for-quote, basis. “But if they try to edit quotes to make them more favorable than the reality of the conversation, that’s a dangerous path to go down,” Scherer said. “The issue is whether you should be complicit.”
The obvious answer is no, but the reality for working journalists can be much more complicated. During the 2012 presidential campaign, The New York Times' Jeremy Peters wrote a much-buzzed-about story chronicling how reporters on the bus were forced to observe draconian rules when interviewing Obama political operatives. Every quote had to be cleared at Obama headquarters in Chicago and “[t]he quotations come back redacted, stripped of colorful metaphors, colloquial language and anything even mildly provocative,” Peters wrote. “Most reporters, desperate to pick the brains of the president’s top strategists, grudgingly agree.”
Towson University Prof. Martha Kumar, a scholar of White House media relations who's been haunting the press briefing room, on and off, since Gerald Ford’s presidency in 1975, said that the administration's attempt to exert control over news stories and restrict information and access is hardly a new phenomenon. But the Obama White House is particularly juicy target of complaints, she said.
“That becomes a major problem for them, because he made all those promises of transparency and openness during the 2008 campaign,” she said. “The kinds of things they’re doing now are inconsistent with those pledges.”
The good news, Kumar added, is that a White House during a second term tends to be populated by officials who become increasingly invested in promoting their personal legacies, as opposed to protecting the reputation of a lame-duck president. And ultimately, Kumar said, “efforts at message discipline tend not to work” and tongues, at long last, begin to wag.