The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Sunday, June 08, 2003

Wolfowitz, war lies and transcripts

It was a staple of the old espionage movie: in order to establish the credibility of your double-agent, you'd give him stuff to pass on that was actually true. Once the enemy were believing him, you started pushing through the false dope.

Well, we've had a variation on the theme with the case of Wolfowitz and the Guardian misquotation - the paper's apology (June 7) recaps the facts [1].

Since credibility on the war is rather a zero-sum game, the Guardian misquotation, together with the Vanity Fair one [2], tends to have the effect of boosting Wolfowitz's by damaging that of his opponents (or those liable to be identified as such). Wolfowitz is cast in the role of the traduced White Knight, they as being unable to best him by fair means, so resorting to foul.

The weapon of those supporting Wolfowitz is the official transcript, which permits an easy compare and contrast with the versions peddled by those sleazy twisters of the media, who cut and paste - and omit and decontextualise (the OJR piece mentions the Maureen Dowd affair, too). The transcript, on the other hand, is straight from the shoulder, full and uncut, the real McCoy.

Or is it? The OJR piece quotes Brendan Nyhan of Spinsanity as saying that
in several cases, White House transcripts have omitted or corrected various misstatements from the president and spokesman Ari Fleischer...

Now, I think people are generally aware that records of legislative proceedings (such as the Congressional Record and the UK Hansard) are not - and, to be fair, do not pretend to be - verbatim records of what is said and done. But - conceivably - thousands of bloggers eager to factcheck the product of war-sceptical media may be under the impression that the transcripts which litter the DOD, State and White House states are.

Of course, it should be folly for USG to doctor the transcript of a press briefing where there are dozens of journos all with records with which it can be cross-checked. But I wonder how many actual do take a shorthand note of such briefings; or keep the tapes. And it might not be unduly cynical to consider whether regulatory capture or natural indolence might not play a part in such doctoring not coming to light.

Fun and games with press briefings are scarcely a novelty: even Bush himself admitted that his March 6 press conference was fixed - my piece March 13. And complicity of the journos being something of a given - the NY Times took brown-nosing Bush to the extent of omitting a reference to the President
sounding sedate
from its print edition [3] - I doubt whether any mentioned his quip on the subject.

USG transcripts as holy writ? I should coco!

  1. Bizarrely, the paper used German sources and translated them back into English! Rather than, oh, checking with one of the anglophone wire journalists who must have been covering the briefing, and, presumably had shorthand notes and tapes of what he'd said.

  2. An OJR piece of June 5 explains further, with links.

  3. There is no trace of the NYT piece (in any version) on either regular Google or Usenet searches. Damn!

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