Thursday, September 02, 2004

Creative Editing in the SCLM

by Tom Bozzo

Today was a curious day for the Washington Post.

On my usual morning visit, I saw this fact-check article, "Giuliani Charges Lack Context" by staff writer Glenn Kessler. Not seeing a page number, I took it for an online-only story, but was kind of glad that someone was pointing out that Giuliani was not exactly telling the entire truth in his Monday speech.

Around lunchtime, as I usually do, I took in Bob Somerby's Howler, where much of the day's piece took Kessler on for being far too polite about Guiliani's gross dissembling. Somerby's kicker was that Kessler didn't even address Giuliani's most egregious falsehood, the reference to Kerry's votes on the $87 billion appropriation for Iraq, ending with the punchline about the two Americas and how Kerry could vote for the exact same thing different ways in each one.

Every informed person should know that in reality, Kerry favored one version of a controversial bill and opposed another, while Bush favored a different version (that eventually enacted) and threatened to veto others. So subject to an appropriate transformation, Bush and Kerry are in the exact same position on the $87 billion. Even though President Bush has never specifically said (to my knowledge) "I threatened to veto the $87 billion before I signed it," it's what he did! Such a statement would be true!

Somerby's statement struck me as odd, since I would have sworn that I saw the $87 billion addressed in the article. Somerby may often be sarcastic, but his research is sound. I followed his link. No mention of the $87 billion. I visit my browser history and close examination reveals two different URLs -- the reference to the $87 billion has been edited out of the story between the original online posting and the story being buried on A22.

The editorial decision has the effect of massively recontextualizing the published portion of Kessler's piece. Think Borges' "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote".

In the published version, Kessler takes on Giuliani's statements regarding the Israeli security wall, whatever Kerry really said about "leaders" supporting him, and whether Kerry is for or against the war, all of which are shown to take Kerry out of context. With the possible exception of the last, it is fair to say that these are not the sort of resonant issues over which the Republicans have been bashing Kerry.* So by omitting reference to the archetypal "flip-flop" and arguably Giuliani's biggest anti-Kerry line of the night (certainly the soundbite from the speech that I heard on NPR the following morning despite my best efforts to avoid it), the defense of Kerry comes off as a collection of nit picks. But if the Republicans are being misleading misleaders over the $87 billion (as they are), then the rest of their effort to dissect the Kerry record for supposed flip-flops itself devolves into nitpicking.

The other editorial decision of note was to terminate the Giuliani quote before the two Americas crack in the longer version. Why? As Somerby's addendum notes, the entire quote shows not merely lack of context-providing on Giuliani's part, but rather blatant falsehood, as the "context" completely belies the punch line. Giuliani said "exactly the same thing" and it just plain wasn't. If the climactic attack is false...

So why did the Post pull the punch for a story to be buried on A22? Was even Kessler's mild "contextualizing" too hard on St. Rudy for the capital's "real" newspaper?

Update 9/2/04: Today the Times apparently gets in on the act, as a criticism of Commerce Secretary Evans' comments on Kerry's tax cut record disappears from an article by Adam Nagourney, according to Somerby. Post title modified accordingly.

* And even there, Kerry's real position, that Bush was right in some sense about needing to prevent Saddam Hussein from becoming a threat, but the administration's implementation of the policies was wrongheaded and inept, is hardly inexplicable and arguably the plurarlity view.
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