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Harvard student publication invited dean to review story and change quotes before publication

From what I’ve learned anecdotally over the years, my first professional newsroom was relatively laid back as far as they go.

Nobody was tethered to a BlackBerry (that dates me), just a few breaking-news reports were written after office hours each year, and reporters weren’t overly protective of their beats.

We did have one strict rule: Sources don’t get to see anything except their spoken quotes – not even paraphrases – before publication.

The thinking goes that when you interview a person, your foremost obligation is to accurately write down their words if you plan to put them between quotes. If you heard it, there’s a chance you misheard it or miswrote it – and it’s fair to give sources a chance to review and possibly contest your hearing and dexterity.

If they wrote it in an email or a press release, sorry – they know what they wrote. Trying to change it after the fact is trying to rewrite history.

Not the brightest bulb

Yet there are a surprising number of would-be time travelers who give interviews, and one of them is Harvard Law School Dean Martha Minow.

She went into an interview with the Harvard Law Record so utterly unprepared that she didn’t realize she was speaking on the record – meaning that everything is quotable – which is the default assumption whenever you talk to a reporter.

Yet the party that emerges looking worse in this scenario is the Record itself, an independent student outlet that prides itself on open-mindedness.

MORE: Dean Minow honored for race relations, heckled by race protesters

The Record recounts what happened in a snarky “apology” editorial that seems utterly ignorant of its own violation of commonly recognized journalistic ethics:

On September 30, the editors-in-chief of The Record conducted a brief interview with Dean Minow to discuss topics of interest to the Harvard Law School community. We had hoped to make these Q&A’s a regular feature of The Record, with the intention of fostering frank, substantive dialogue between the HLS administration and the student body. Ahead of the interview, we provided the administration with a general overview of the kinds of topics we hoped to cover. HLS’s public relations director, Michelle Deakin, agreed to the interview on the condition that the Dean would be allowed to review the article ahead of publication, and approve or reject the wording of individual quotations.

Hold on a sec.

Not only did the Record editors offer a person who could ruin their academic careers the chance to see what they wrote while she could still kill it – inviting an arrangement (prior review) often forced on high school journalists – they gave Minow carte blance to “approve or reject the wording” of every quote.

There’s no indication in the editorial that Minow was simply asking for permission to correct misheard quotes, or that Record editors even tried to negotiate her down to reviewing quotes for accuracy.

It’s no joke – the Record ‘compromised our journalistic integrity’

Naturally, when you give this broad leeway to a person in power, they don’t stop there. The Record sent the pre-publication draft to Minow, who promptly axed the entire interview.

Why? Apparent stupidity: Law school flak Michelle Deakin claimed that she marked the entire interview “off the record,” which begs the question why Minow demanded the right to review her quotes as a condition of the interview. (The Record questions were entirely predictable: gender ratios at HLS, the legal glass ceiling, diversity at HLS, affirmative action, HLS’s role in a Donald Trump presidency, and of course, the Cubs.)

MORE: Dean Minow puts ‘microaggressions’ in same league as sexual assault

Deakin claims the School of Minow though this was “an informational interview,”

and that you might develop a story idea or two from the conversation. You have no permission to use any quotations. Neither the Dean nor I were aware that you were hoping to present these answers as a q and a, and the Dean will not be granting permission for her quotes to be condensed and presented in this manner.

It’s hard to tell who screwed up on the administration side from the Record‘s recounting, but it seems plausible that they aren’t used to dealing with the media. Any competent flak lays down the precise terms before, during and after the interview, in writing, so that nobody is caught off guard later.

The Record editors call BS on Deakin’s weak explanation, noting Minow has no reason to review quotes that are off the record, but undermine their moral authority yet again by confirming they want Minow to “give us permission to use her words or send us edited copies of her answers” as agreed to before the interview.

They apologize sarcastically for “having compromised our journalistic integrity” by sending Minow the pre-publication article to line-item veto – and yet that’s exactly what they should be apologizing for, to readers.

MORE: Harvard Law seal on the chopping block after likely hate-crime hoax

Who’s the enabler?

People in power frequently don’t like how they are portrayed in the media. Some go the obvious route and state specifically what is factually wrong or what is taken out of context in reporting on them, making their case directly to the public. It’s not exactly hard!

Some make broad and frequent legal threats against the publications they dislike, as Trump has done in this election cycle (though like much of what Trump says, there appears to be little followthrough).

And others are simultaneously so incompetent and so confident that they can dictate the terms of coverage to reporters they can threaten with student conduct proceedings, retroactively change the terms of coverage, and then give a stunningly credulous explanation for how these were the terms all along.

Minow is just doing what anyone in authority does, however: test its limits.

The Record could have easily avoided this situation had it simply told Minow that its first obligation is to readers, and readers aren’t served when sources can travel back in time and change what they said or un-say it altogether.

And yet its editors publicly brag what a toady the Record is. Pity the future of journalism.

MORE: High-profile principal has history of squelching student media

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IMAGE: Harvard Law Record/Flickr

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About the Author
Associate Editor
Greg Piper served as associate editor of The College Fix from 2014 to 2021.