On Sunday The New Yorker published David Remnick’s splashy 17,000-word profile of Barack Obama, featuring the second-term President’s thoughts on marijuana, partisan gridlock, and hazy plans for his family’s post-White House life. The magazine’s access came with a price, though.
Remnick has reported on Obama for years, and published a lengthy biography in 2010. He’s also the editor-in-chief of The New Yorker. So the author-subject pairing makes sense. But in order to write his new profile, the result of a three-day trip to California and several hours of on-the-record interviews, Remnick quietly agreed to abide by quote-approval rules, requiring him to petition the White House in order to quote Obama from conversations not explicitly designated as on-the-record.
Reached by phone on Monday morning, Remnick explained that the bulk of the profile’s quotations were drawn from three different interviews that the White House decreed as on-the-record: an 80-minute interview on Air Force One, a 75-minute interview in the Oval Office, and a 20-minute phone call.
“I also spoke to him off the record on other occasions,” Remnick added via email, “with the agreement that I would see later if I could put them on the record. I succeeded on most, lost out on a couple of others—but near all the material was on the record in the first place (including the marijuana stuff which Gawker ran yesterday).” He declined to outline the content of the quotes that were not approved.
The arrangement appears similar to the one brokered by Michael Lewis for his 2012 Vanity Fair profile, for which Lewis tailed the President for six months and ran every quote by the White House. Still, Remnick declined to compare Lewis’s account to his own. “There’s not enough detail to tell,” he said. (Both men work under the magazine conglomerate Condé Nast, which owns The New Yorker and Vanity Fair.)
By Remnick’s account, his on-the-record interviews with Obama were not heavily managed. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney accompanied the President while Remnick interviewed him in the Oval Office; another White House staffer monitored the Air Force One interview. (Neither aide interrupted Remnick or Obama during the interviews.)
“The goal was to hear him think,” Remnick told Gawker.
Still, Remnick’s access to Obama’s more extemporaneous moments was limited. The profile explains that Remnick accompanied the President on “a three-day fund-raising trip to Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles,” where he witnessed Obama “rattling the cup in one preposterous mansion after another.” Several question-and-answer sessions following each fundraiser, however, were considered off-the-record.* (Remnick also followed strict rules governing which areas of Air Force One’s cabin are considered off-the-record.)
As Jeremy Peters explained in 2012, quote approval agreements are common in Washington journalism, though not widely understood outside of the town’s media circles. The practice is controversial enough that the New York Times and other outlets effectively banned their reporters from consenting to quote-approval agreements. “Quotes should not be submitted to press aides for approval or edited after the fact,” Times executive editor Jill Abramson wrote in a paper-wide memo.
The White House is not alone in demanding quote approval. “Very often,” said Remnick of the Washington officials he’s interviewed, “The first thing a person says is, ‘Let’s just talk, and then if you want to use something, let me know.’”
“While I have problems with the way this and all White Houses deal with the press at times, I don’t think there was anything off,” Remnick said in a subsequent email. “I’ve written critically about Obama on climate change, Egypt, gay marriage (when I thought he was moving too slowly and cagily) and so on, but the goal here was to get him talking, at length, and with pressure on his arguments [...] and also to give a portrait of him, the way he thinks.”
It’s fair to say Remnick practices what he preaches. Only once during our phone call did he request to go off-the-record, a condition he gracefully withdrew after we asked him to.
The White House declined to comment.
* Update: Due to a misunderstanding (on Gawker’s, not Remnick’s part), we inaccurately stated that Remnick was escorted out of the Q&A sessions of several fundraisers where Obama spoke. The sessions were considered off-the-record, but Remnick was in fact allowed to attend them.
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