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Sunday, December 11, 2016

Let us now access the state of the free press in this land of … well, of press freedom. The assessment? Pathetic. Not because of any government clampdown, but because of increasing press pusillanimity.

In recent years, newspaper reporting had already been severely weakened by drastic cutbacks in newsrooms (including the near-abandonment of hard-nosed investigative reporting by conglomerate CEOs and bean-counters more interested in upping the corporate stock price than in providing journalistic exposes). But the latest decline comes from newsroom managers and staff who’ve chosen to compromise on a core aspect of good reporting: conducting untainted, straightforward interviews.

Those in charge of running major newspapers and blogs these days have gone all wonky on their basic job of getting public and corporate figures to provide honest, informative answers to important who-what-when-where-and-why questions that inform the citizenry.

The compromise they’ve made is a pernicious practice called “quote approval.” This began with PR flacks for public officials and political candidates demanding that reporters agree — as a price of being granted an interview — to submit any quotes they intend to use from the interview to the interviewee’s staff for approval. Thus, when Mr. Big blurts out something shocking, stupid or actually newsworthy, Mr. Big’s staff of bowdlerizers can tidy it up or just erase it. The comment might’ve been news, but — zzzzzzztt — it’s gone, as though it were never uttered.

It’s not surprising that today’s media-sensitive political figures (including Barack Obama and Mitt Romney) would demand this extraordinary right to censor what they themselves said, but it’s utterly despicable that media bosses and reporters have so gutlessly caved in to the demand. It reduces reporters from hard-nosed diggers to brown-nosed beggars, and it makes a mockery of our democracy’s need for a free press. Yet many of America’s major publications — from Bloomberg News to The New York Times — have meekly surrendered to this restraint.

And now, corporate executives have realized that, hey, we can emasculate the press, too! Thus, Wall Street barons, Silicon Valley hotshots and even the bosses of media conglomerates are demanding (and getting) quote approval for stories about their operations.