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The “Ventriloquist Journalism” Beat

Kudos to John for staying after Eric Lipton’s fast one, which is a classic in the genre of what I call “ventriloquist journalism”–the highly refined technique by which “news” reporters seek out a source to confirm their preconceived story line with a specific quote. I didn’t think of that term myself; I learned it from my first mentor out of college, the great M. Stanton Evans, who was one of the nation’s youngest major newspaper editors decades ago at the Indianapolis Star. (I think he was something like 26 years old when he became editor.)
Reporters for mainstream media publications like the Times are extremely skilled at this dark art, and have numerous techniques for getting a source to utter a pre-written quote. Basically they just ask the same question over and over again in different form, and them culminate with, “In other words, would it be fair to say that. . .” until you give in. It takes a lot of patience and determination to resist their well-polished blandishments. The best of them have the whole “good-cop, bad-cop” schtick down cold.
My single most memorable experience of this technique came back in 2002 when President George W. Bush refused to attend the UN’s Earth Summit in South Africa, where, like the UN Human Rights meetings, the chief item on the agenda was the abuse of the United States. Environmentalists and other right-thinking people everywhere were outraged. Somehow I got a ton of calls from reporters, many of them with overseas news organizations, that kept trying to get me to say something along the lines that President Bush was making a mistake, that things would go so much better if he turned up even if only to argue a different point of view, and so forth. They’d ask the same question over and over again, and I’d refuse to give them the quote or characterization they were looking for, no doubt something like “Even some conservatives think President Bush is making a mistake,” etc. Sometimes these interviews would go on a long time, and I’d make a lot of colorful comments criticizing the whole circus. And somehow I never got quoted in any of the stories that resulted. Didn’t fit the pre-written story line.

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