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:
It’s 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 we’ll get hit again and we’ll 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
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]t’s 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 we’ll get hit again and we’ll 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.