Joyce Terhaar

From the Executive Editor: 'Quote approval' unacceptable at Bee

Joyce Terhaar
Joyce Terhaar

Certain political behavior has become part of our shared history – and not always because the politician involved wanted to be remembered that way.

Remember former Gov. Gray Davis' 1999 comment to the San Francisco Chronicle editorial board when he said his election victory meant the Legislature's job was "to implement my vision"?

Or former Senate President Pro Tem John Burton's outrageously profane language?

Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was famously bombastic and sometimes crude, and will be remembered for calling legislators, including women and gays, "girlie men."

You know all of this because of the commitment among California's press corps to hold government officials accountable for what they say and do. Alarming news out of Washington this month shows a different sensibility among some national members of the press, a clear erosion of the watchdog efforts within the media.

The New York Times reported that "quote approval" is common practice from the White House to the campaign trail, among both political parties and throughout Congress and Washington. Major news companies, including the Times and the Washington Post, have agreed to that as terms for access to interviews and group briefings.

The practice is an affront to the First Amendment, more dangerous even than outright suppression because it undermines trust in the independence and truth-telling mission of news organizations.

It is, sadly, just one of too many efforts to protect the image of the powerful at the expense of public knowledge. Yes, some public servants courageously reveal problems and work publicly to solve them. Yet too many others obfuscate or actively fight efforts to make information public.

The Times story set off a furor within newsrooms. Some organizations immediately moved to stop the practice and even the Times said it was reviewing its policy. Editors at other news organizations reiterated to staff that it is better to lose the interview than to agree to quote approval. The Washington bureau of McClatchy, The Bee's parent company, is among those newsrooms that do not allow quote approval.

Bureau Chief James Asher emphasized to staff that "we do not alter accurate quotes from any source. And to the fullest extent possible, we do not make deals that we will clear quotes as a condition of interviews."

Asher concedes his tough stance might put the bureau at a disadvantage competitively. Nonetheless, he's asked reporters to argue strenuously for on-the-record interviews with government officials.

The stakes may be higher on the national stage, yet California and Sacramento are close behind. Bee reporters regularly battle to hold public officials accountable for what they say and do, and to open government information to public scrutiny. The Bee's Capitol Bureau does not allow quote approval.

"It's our job to hold government accountable, not to serve as its mouthpiece," said Amy Chance, The Bee's senior political editor.

Chance said the issue has become more complicated as communication has changed. Sources prefer to decline interviews and instead email statements, so they can carefully craft their message.

The fight for public transparency is far bigger than the reporting from under the Capitol dome. Sometimes it's a battle for public documents or access to a courtroom.

Last week Bee reporters Marjie Lundstrom and Sam Stanton won access to future hearings about missing "Baby Dwight" Stallings at the William R. Ridgeway Family Relations Courthouse.

Dependency Court typically is closed to the media and public. Judge Jerilyn L. Borack agreed to open the hearing and records to The Bee after we submitted declarations of support from former Sheriff John McGinness and Robert Fellmeth, executive director of the Children's Advocacy Institute. Sacramento County officials had fought to keep everything private, arguing, among other things, that our coverage already had portrayed the bench, some attorneys and the county "in a less than favorable light."

The county eventually softened its stance and, fortunately, Judge Borack sided with The Bee. Arguing to keep secrets because the truth makes you look bad should never be a reason for government or the courts to block public access.