The 'Most Transparent Administration Ever' Doctors Its Quotes

Media outlets send snippets of interviews to White House officials, who tweak them before publication or prohibit their use entirely.
obama full sitting reuters.jpg

This is a story best told in quotes.

Here's newly sworn in President Obama, welcoming his senior staff to the White House in January of 2009:

I will also hold myself as president to a new standard of openness .... Let me say it as simply as I can: Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency.

From a subsequent Obama Administration memo on transparency that bears the president's signature:

My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government. We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney in May of last year:

This president has demonstrated a commitment to transparency and openness that is greater than any administration has shown in the past, and he's been committed to that since he ran for president and he's taken a significant number of measures to demonstrate that.

And from today's New York Times:

The quotations come back redacted, stripped of colorful metaphors, colloquial language and anything even mildly provocative. They are sent by e-mail from the Obama headquarters in Chicago to reporters who have interviewed campaign officials under one major condition: the press office has veto power over what statements can be quoted and attributed by name .... Quote approval is standard practice for the Obama campaign, used by many top strategists and almost all midlevel aides in Chicago and at the White House -- almost anyone other than spokesmen who are paid to be quoted. (And sometimes it applies even to them.) It is also commonplace throughout Washington and on the campaign trail.

The story later states:

The Obama campaign declined to make Mr. Plouffe or Mr. Messina available to explain their media practices. "We are not putting anyone on the record for this story," said Katie Hogan, an Obama spokeswoman, without a hint of irony...

Under President Obama, the insistence on blanket anonymity has grown to new levels. The White House's latest innovation is a variation of the background briefing called the "deep-background briefing," which it holds for groups of reporters, sometimes several dozen at a time. Reporters may paraphrase what senior administration officials say, but they are forbidden to put anything in quotation marks or identify the speakers. The White House held such a briefing after the Supreme Court's health care ruling last month with officials including Mr. Plouffe, Mr. Carney and Dan Pfeiffer, the communications director. But when reporters asked to quote part of the conversation, even anonymously, they were told no. Even the spokesmen were off limits.

I had no idea this quote doctoring went on. Every media outlet party to it should be chagrined that the Times thought to break the story first. As for the Obama White House, it's one more broken promise.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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