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One More Reason To Love the Bluebook

Julian Sanchez over at Reason (and no great friend of the Bush campaign) illustrates one more reason to believe that journalists should have standards of accuracy at least as high as lawyers, but certainly don't act like they do. Pointing to news reports of Dick Cheney's 'scandalous' remarks about Kerry and the war on terror, Mr. Sanchez rightly complains that the BBC and MSNBC misquoted Cheney. Specifically, they quoted this:

Its absolutely essential that eight weeks from today, on November 2, we make the right choice, because if we make the wrong choice, then the danger is that well get hit again and well be hit in a way that will be devastating from the standpoint of the United States.

Well, actually, that's what Joe Trippi is saying on MSNBC. The BBC just mangles the below into three or four different paragraphs, making it impossible to figure out Cheney's actual words. What he did say is:
We're now at that point where we're making that kind of decision for the next 30 or 40 years, and it's absolutely essential that eight weeks from today, on November 2nd, we make the right choice. Because if we make the wrong choice, then the danger is that we'll get hit again, that we'll be hit in a way that will be devastating from the standpoint of the United States, and that we'll fall back into the pre-9/11 mind set if you will, that in fact these terrorist attacks are just criminal acts, and that we're not really at war.

Now, it's worth noting that more (Sanchez) or less (Maureen Dowd) reasonable people may disagree on the meaning of the quotation. What you can't say is that it's fair to present your readers with no textual clues that you've doctored your subject's words.

Which is where Rule 5.3(b) of the Bluebook comes in, covering omissions to text in quotations. The idea is that by having a set of textual symbols to at least show how a text has been changed, a reader can be put on notice that you may be playing fast and loose with your speaker's words. For instance, if Mr. Trippi had been made to Bluebook his MSNBC article, the text would have looked something like this:

[I]ts absolutely essential that eight weeks from today, on November 2, we make the right choice[, b]ecause if we make the wrong choice, then the danger is that well get hit again and well be hit in a way that will be devastating from the standpoint of the United States. . . .

To be honest, I'm not even sure that's in proper Bluebook format: I've never seen a quotation altered quite so violently in a law review before. But even if I've made small mistakes, the important point remains. It's immediately obvious to the reader from the above that the quotation (a) doesn't begin at the same point as the original; (b) is a combination of two sentences; and (c) doesn't end at the same place either.

Good authors avoid quotations like that, simply because alert readers will immediately question why the author felt such a need to edit his subject's speech. Mr. Trippi completely misrepresents the Vice-President's words, and then wonders how a campaign staffer will explain them away. One more reason that after a news article piques my interest, I'll check the blogs of law professors or lawyers to see what they think. After all, these old Bluebooking habits--ones journalists don't seem to care about--die awfully hard.

Update: First, welcome Instapundit readers. Also, I fixed some links above.

Second, one of my commentors has linked to this Washington Post story that indicates the text on the "official White House transcript" might have been changed:

In a change that highlighted the sensitivity of Cheney's statement, the White House yesterday released a revised version of the transcript of his remarks. The official transcript, posted on the White House Web site Tuesday afternoon and e-mailed to reporters, said: "(I)t's absolutely essential that eight weeks from today, on November 2nd, we make the right choice. Because if we make the wrong choice, then the danger is that we'll get hit again."

In a version released Tuesday to reporters traveling with Cheney, however, the period at the end of "hit again" was removed and replaced with a comma, which linked his blunter statement to his standard stump language expressing concern that future attacks would be treated as "just criminal acts, and that we're not really at war."

Yesterday, the transcript on the White House Web site was altered to make Cheney's remarks one sentence. Cheney's White House spokesman, Kevin Kellems, issued a statement saying that the first official transcript "contained a typographical error" and was an "interim draft." "These types of corrections are not uncommon in the transcription of verbal statements," Kellems said. "The final transcript accurately reflects the statement as delivered, which is clear when watching video of the event."


There's a few interesting things to note about this. First, the MSNBC comment becomes even more divergent from the source text if compared with the 'original' version in the Washington Post. Secondly, note that the Washington Post story actually has two different versions of the quote in the same story. In the sixth paragraph of their article, they quote Cheney as follows:
Cheney, in Des Moines on Tuesday, delivered the campaign's message that the United States would be safer in Bush's hands with cutting-torch directness, saying, "It's absolutely essential that eight weeks from today, on November 2nd, that we make the right choice, because if we make the wrong choice then the danger is that we'll get hit again."

So we're now left with a couple of questions. Is the Post reporting on what they claim Bush said? They can't be citing either version of the transcript, because their quotation agrees with neither.

In the law review world, this is solved via citations, something the media is loathe to do. If I wanted to Bluebook any of the sources above, I'd do more than give the link: recognizing the fluid nature of the internet, I'd make a print out and list the date on which I cited it. I'd then keep the information on file, available for all and sundry. Obviously, most blogs don't do this, but there's no reason a journalist couldn't.

In the case of the Post, the solution would be simple: if they're going to claim that the speech differed from both transcripts, they'd put an audio file on the website, or at least provide one when asked. That, however, seems a hope too far.

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I think you overlook the key point which emerges from the correct quotation: 1) Cheney didn't say that electing Kerry would increase the danger that we would get hit again. 2) He said something more complicated: if Kerry is elected, then the danger is that when we are hit, a President Kerry and his administration would revert to the old mindset that we are not at war and this is just a legal matter. This is, if you will, a "nuanced" point of view, but I think it is the most fair reading of what Cheney was trying to say. Because of the way he stated it, his assertion does lend itself to misinterpretation.
Well said, Anthony. Of course, I'd just be happy if journalists had to cite their sources like lawyers must.
John - right on both counts.
That's precisely what Cheney said, however perhaps there is a point beyond the obvious. If terrorists believe Kerry is apt to view their attacks as criminal acts instead of acts of warfare, it certainly might enhance the probability of further attacks. I'm not sure that is implied in what Cheney said, but I suspect it's true.
One of the reasons the "old" media is more distrusted than it used to be, and is less relevant than the "new" media, is that they don't hyperlink, or cite, the original sources, such as speech transcripts or articles. Now that blogs are available and bloggers / pundits have the ability to hyperlink, all of the readers who want it "straight from the horses mouth" can check it out, and when we do, we notice the omissions, deletions, and faulty summations of the "old" media, where some of us still start, with the networks or the dead-tree version of news. It seems that the "old" media never realized the impact C-Span had on many of us, in that our desire to see and hear the actual wording, unfiltered, made us welcome the advent of well-written blogged pieces. We won't go back. Furthermore, they don't appreciate the skill level of many blog readers (I only read bloggers, I am not one myself) and bloggers in their ability to Google and search old archives. The "old" media needs to attend a week long seminar put on by some highly skilled bloogers, and I hope they have to pay through the nose.
While it is a shame that the left has managed to use Cheney's 'nuanced' statement and twist it into this bit of absurdity, we should understand that the right (we'uns) have been having a field day with JFK's 'nuanced' ideas and proclamations. VP Cheney should stick to meat and potatoes on the stump and leave the nouvelle cuisine for dinner parties.
While it is a shame that the left has managed to use Cheney's 'nuanced' statement and twist it into this bit of absurdity, we should understand that the right (we'uns) have been having a field day with JFK's 'nuanced' ideas and proclamations. VP Cheney should stick to meat and potatoes on the stump and leave the nouvelle cuisine for dinner parties.
While it is a shame that the left has managed to use Cheney's 'nuanced' statement and twist it into this bit of absurdity, we should understand that the right (we'uns) have been having a field day with JFK's 'nuanced' ideas and proclamations. VP Cheney should stick to meat and potatoes on the stump and leave the nouvelle cuisine for dinner parties.
oops! Sorry for the burst my Post key was inadvertantly set on 'Auto'.
First off, I agreee that journalists and others are far too casual with their use of quotes and would benefit greatly from following something akin to blue book format. That said, have a look at this http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A6629-2004Sep8.html and compare to the offical transcript you have cited. Pay particular attention to the last two paragraphs of the Post article. It seems that the official transcript has changed. Trippi and others are misquoting regardless, but it bears noting that the source material, a website, is rather fluid. If the Post article is correct, Cheney's office has changed the offical transcript without any notation or mention of the change. It appears to me that the VP's office is just as guilty of torturing his remarks to fit their needs. Chris
Just a question, since some of this disdain toward the Blogging community came from a professor of journalism and ethics. Lawyers have the Code of Professional Responsibility (one set of written rules, enforced by their state disciplinary board) or the Model Code (ditto). Is there a written set of rules for journalistic ethics? Is it online? Wouldn't it be helpful to cite these back to journalists and pundits of the newspapers and networks who misquote or Dowdify their material? Or is it an oral or an ad-hoc judgment? Does each news outlet have its own rules? Are they published? Does anyone know about this? Would they please comment? Thanks.
John: I didn't so much overlook your points as not make them the focus of my article. A lot of ink/pixels have been spilled over what meaning to give the quotes, and as I mentioned, I think Sanchez is probably closer to right than Dowd. Nonetheless, commentators who quoted more or less accurately differ, and their differences weren't my subject. Chris: It's an interesting point made in the Washington Post article. Nevertheless, I think there's a world of difference between changing an 'official' transcript (especially since there seems to have been three versions) and making no record that you're changing the quote. In a law review, you get around the problem you raise through citation: a citation to an internet source should include the last date it was viewed. (Of course, I don't Bluebook my blog, either--maybe I should start.) The Post admirably goes into an explanation of what might have been written or meant, and I'm not going to get into whether a viewing of the speech might be ambiguous as to whether a glottal stop constitutes a comma or a period. (Again, reasonable people will disagree.) But look at what the Post does do. It quotes Cheney's speech in both the sixth paragraph and the twelveth. But in the second, it marks up the start of the quotation as I did above: with brackets. (OK, parentheses, but bear with me.) The initial use of the quotation does not. What do we make of this? Does the Post feel the transcript is wrong in this sense, as well? Or is their quotation wrong? Why bother marking it in one place and not the other?
It has always bugged me when journalists claim the mantle of the Constitution for their role in society when they aren't accountable to anyone. They say they're the champions of the "peoples' right to know," but they seem to interpret that as "the peoples' right to know what we want them to." One thing I really liked about the late Michael Kerry, whose loss I mourn, is that he did not consider himself a professional or call himself a journalist. He said he was a reporter. And he both reported and wrote more honestly, vividly and clearly than almost anyone else I can think of.
I've rarely defended Cheney, but I don't see the big deal about his quote even before the transcript changed. Since the main issue of this election is national security, the whole point is that "our side" will make you safer than "their side". Personally, I think Bush has done a horrible job on national security. He failed to cripple the Al Qaeda terrorists when he had the chance. He made a mess of Iraq. Our military is stuck in Iraq for 5 years, leaving us in no shape to credibly threaten Iran or North Korea. He even proposed CUTBACKS in the Nunn-Lugar program to secure nukes in the old Soviet Union.
Ooops. The what-if Trippi quote should have a space before the ellipsis. _Compare_ the example in 5.3(b)(iii), _with_ the example in 5.3(b)(iv). When the sentence ends where you start deleting text (i.e, there's a period, question mark, etc.), the original punctuation goes right next to the last word, followed by an ellipsis. That is, no space after the last word. Where, however, text is deleted before the end of the sentence (i.e, the sentence doesn't end right there), the ellipsis comes first, and _then_ is followed by the original punctuation. That is, there _is_ a space before the four-dots.
Noted. :)

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