August 26th, 2005

Okay, NY Times, so what have you got to say about this?

In yesterday’s piece on press bias, I mentioned that one of the things that bother people who are sick of press distortions (the word I favor instead of “bias”) is the use of the truncated quote. Quotes are often cut off prematurely, manipulated, and/or offered out-of-context, in ways that change their meaning.

And so today I read (via LGF) this post, which makes it crystal clear that the Times did exactly that with the recent Condi Rice quote for which she received so much criticism, “It cannot be Gaza only.” Read the whole Rich Richman post and decide for yourself.

The wonderful thing about communications today is that it is easier than ever before to view transcripts of the actual interviews from which newspapers get the information which they summarize for those of us who have neither the time nor the inclination to “read the whole thing.” Many of us (myself included) used to trust the MSM to get it right–after all, reading comprehension (or listening comprehension) ought to be one of the basic skills of any reporter, and not so very difficult to achieve. How hard can it be to summarize what a person has said?

Apparently, very very hard, if not impossible, at least for many reporters–oops, “journalists.” I can think of only three explanations: either reporters are actually less intelligent than the average person, or they are negligently careless in writing their stories, or they are purposely shaping the quotes to make a propaganda point and relying on the fact that their reading public will never know the difference (actually, some combination of these three factors is also possible).

But none of these, as Martha Stewart would say, is “a good thing.” Take your pick on which is actually operating here. Whatever it is that is behind it, thank goodness the internet is affording us the opportunity to see the process in action, and to adjust our beliefs accordingly.

[ADDENDUM: The Unknown Blogger makes an interesting point here, which is that, during a conference on June 20 at the American University in Cairo, Ms. Rice made a similar statement. See this. The quote in question is the following:

I think we have much work to do in the Middle East. We have the work of reform. You have much work to do in the Middle East, the work of reform. We have the work, of course, to do with the Palestinians and Israelis. The day that there is a democratic Palestine living side by side in peace with a democratic Israel is going to be a day that this region clearly has a new sense of hope and a new sense of unity. And so, of course, we need to work each and every day toward the resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

I can just say I was just in Israel and in the Palestinian territories and I found that the leaders there are very conscious of the special nature of this moment, that the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza can be a first step. And I want to say very clearly, Gaza -- it cannot be Gaza only. And we have said this to the Israelis and I think you heard Prime Minister Sharon say yesterday that this can reenergize the roadmap. And so we look for the Gaza withdrawal to be successful. We're working very hard with the parties on that. That means peaceful and orderly. And then to use the momentum and the trust and the confidence that will have been built over that period to possibly even accelerate our progress on the roadmap, which is, after all, the reliable guide to an independent Palestinian state. And President Bush, who was the first American President to make it policy that there should be a Palestinian state, and a democratic Palestinian state, is very personally devoted to using this moment of opportunity.

I think in all fairness that this quote does cast some doubt on exactly what Ms. Rice was getting at in the first interview, the one the Times was referring to, in which her remarks were more ambiguous. So, the Unknown Blogger does make a point that needs to be taken into consideration.

However, I still have a problem with the Times, although it is a problem of far lesser magnitude than before. In the interview on which they were relying--the one in which the full Rice quote seems to be saying something ambiguous--and also in the June 20th speech in which she seems to be clearer, the context is all-important. And it is that context which the Times has failed to properly emphasize.

Looking at the original NY Times article, available here, I think the failing is not as bad as Richman stated, although it does exist. It is twofold: the quote is truncated in a way that somewhat distorts it, and it is highlighted more than it should have been in the context of Rice's actual remarks, which focused a great deal on the reciprocal obligations of the Palestinians (to its credit, however, the Times certainly does mention these obligations.).

The all-important context is this: Ms. Rice is speaking of a future in which the Palestinians have performed some act (or acts) indicating a quid pro quo on the way to becoming a reformed, democratic, Palestinian state as part of Bush's "roadmap." She is not demanding a further move of unilateral withdrawal by Israel. I believe she makes this fairly clear in other statements she makes on both occasions.

Right now, Israel's Gaza withdrawal is unilateral. It is akin to the opening move of a chess game, a match played with real people, real lives, and real territory. The Bush administration has never backed the idea of Greater Israel, at least as far as I know. But ever since it drew up its new roadmap, it has insisted that moves by Israel must be met with countermoves by Palestine before any new moves would be expected of Israel.

At the beginning of this piece, I wrote that distorted quotes are ones that are "cut off prematurely, manipulated, and/or offered out-of-context, in ways that change their meaning." I agree with the Unknown Blogger that the June 20th interview is certainly relevant here. It also now seems that the Times article in question is not one of the truly blatant examples of distortion that it appeared at first to be, although I think it is nevertheless an example of the problems inherent in truncated quotes. But it is an even better example of some much more subtle aspects of the problem of distortion: the effects of emphasis, placement, and context.

For an example of a different type of emphasis and context that might have, and should have, been provided, Richman suggests the following:

...the Times might have informed its readers that Rice emphasized the dismantlement of Palestinian terrorism four times -- in response to questions from the Times that sought to emphasize next steps by Israel..."So the answer to the question, what comes next, is . . . the Palestinian Authority is going to have to deal with the infrastructure of terrorism, that's one of its obligations"”...That would have been news that was fit to print.

The key phrase of Rice's here is "what comes next." "What comes next" will fall to the Palestinians, not the Israelis, according to Rice. What happens beyond that--including "It cannot be Gaza only"--is a projection into an imaginary future in which the Palestinians have gone a long way towards dismantling its terror apparatus.]

UPDATE: The plot thickens. See this by Omri Ceren. He seems to have followed the matter a great deal more closely for quite some time than most of us have, including myself, and he makes some good points. I am busy tonight with guests, so I can’t give this a lot of attention, but I suggest you read his post and the links and decide.

My quick take on the matter, however, is that the Bush administration, and Rice, have long given such mixed signals about the “roadmap” and what it means that I hereby give the Times a pass on this one.

16 Responses to “Okay, NY Times, so what have you got to say about this?”

  1. M. Simon Says:

    I think it may mean that it is up to Israel to set its borders up at this time and wall itself off from the Palis.

    Which in fact is what is happening.

    When she says “can not” I think she means “will not”. It is a done deal.

  2. neo-neocon Says:

    To Richard Aubrey: No, not “fake but accurate.” More like, “Slightly fake but hard to even know what would be accurate because the speaker has been so unclear on so many occasions that it’s hard to know what was really meant.” It’s a mouthful, I know.

  3. David Thomson Says:

    I’m utterly convinced that Israel dodged a bullet when John Kerry almost won the election. The Democratic Party has been effectively captured by the anti-Zionists. Still, it would make me feel a lot better if the Bush administration would be less ambiguous when it comes to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Israel has gone out of its way to please everybody. Its time for the Palestinians to live up to their side of the bargain. Condi Rice says all the right things—if you are inclined to carefully read all of her statements. But is that good enough? Hell no! Rice should speak more clearly. If she did so, we wouldn’t be having this discussion.

  4. Richard Aubrey Says:

    Damn. Do I see “fake but accurate”?

    The NYT had Rice saying something she clearly didn’t say but that’s okay because at another time she may have said something like what she didn’t say this time.

  5. neo-neocon Says:

    Rich, I agree with you that the Times wasn’t totally accurate with the interview quote, and could (and should) have provided more context than they did. In addition, I think they spotlighted the quote too much (what I call a distortion of emphasis).

    But in this case I still give them the benefit of the doubt because, due to the evidence of Rice’s other statements, she actually has been murky about this issue, and her quote in the interview was ambiguous enough that I think this was a case of a situation where reasonable people could differ. So, in this case, I’ll include the Times under the rubric of “reasonable people.”

  6. Rick Richman Says:

    Thank you for this very good post and very interesting Addendum.

    My post was about the NYT’s manipulation of its own interview (splicing widely separated phrases, misquoting one of them, failing to provide the context of the other, making them into what appeared to be – and what was probably intended to appear as – a single quotation embodying a harsh message to Israel in the midst of dismantling settlements: we don’t really care how difficult this is, you’re going to dismantle more).

    That was not what Rice actually said in this interview, and a reference to disarming “factions” that want to disrupt the “cease fire” is not an accurate summary of her repeated references to the Palestinian Phase I obligations.

    What Rice “really” thinks, and what she may have said on a different occasion, under different circumstances, was beyond the scope of my post. The post was intended to be about NYT journalism, not Rice’s views (except as she stated them in the interview the NYT was purportedly summarizing).

    I will note, however, that the earlier reference was before an Egyptian audience, was not mentioned in Rice’s statements in Israel and other places the day before, was not defined as referencing the four West Bank settlements and the Roadmap, and was not mentioned in the lengthy Washington Post article on Rice’s Egyptian appearance (indicating it was not a significant policy statement).

    The NYT tried to elevate Rice’s spliced, jumbled “quote” into a major American statement aimed at Israel during a critical period of the Gaza withdrawal. It was not that, and the material in your Addendum reinforces the point that accurate quotation, and provision of the context in which the quotation was made, are both central to responsible journalism. On those two criteria, the NYT failed.

  7. Brad Says:

    3) Secretaries don’t have a political agenda.

  8. chuck Says:

    I begin to think, honestly, that the press needs to start considering just releasing entire verbatim transcripts of conversations rather than attempting to edit them.

    And yet it *is* possible to do a decent job of summarizing. I have seen secretaries take notes at long, and even contentious, meetings and do an excellent job. When I read the notes over later I seldom feel that they got it wrong or missed something. There are two reasons that secretaries probably do this better than reporters:

    1) It matters to a company that information be accurate. It is what they pay the secretary for.

    2) The training of professional secretaries is doubtless more demanding and rigorous than the training of journalists.

  9. Dean Esmay Says:

    I begin to think, honestly, that the press needs to start considering just releasing entire verbatim transcripts of conversations rather than attempting to edit them.

    Does it mean things like this will be longer? Yeah. And?

  10. The Unknown Blogger Says:

    Great, I understand you are busy, If you don’t mind, I will post the first 5 paragraphs of the Times article here for the record:

    WASHINGTON, Aug. 17 – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Wednesday offered sympathy for the Israeli settlers who are being removed from their homes in Gaza but also made it clear that she expected Israel and the Palestinians to take further steps in short order toward the creation of a Palestinian state.

    “Everyone empathizes with what the Israelis are facing,” Ms. Rice said in an interview. But she added, “It cannot be Gaza only.”

    Israel began the forcible eviction of thousands of Gaza settlers on Wednesday, and Ms. Rice called it “really quite a dramatic moment in the history of the Middle East.” Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister, she added, had shown himself to be “enormously courageous.”

    Ms. Rice has visited the region twice recently to ensure that the Gaza withdrawal proceeds smoothly. While she noted that the withdrawal would take several weeks to play out, soon after that, she insisted, Israel must take further steps, including loosening travel restrictions in the West Bank and withdrawing from more Palestinian cities.

    At the same, she added, the Palestinian Authority must take its own steps, moving quickly to disarm Palestinian factions intent on breaking the cease-fire.

  11. neo-neocon Says:

    I agree that Bush and Rice haven’t necessarily had a move/countermove path in mind from the outset, UB. You are correct that this was not an accurate characterization of Bush’s policy at the beginning, because in fact he never foresaw that Israel would begin with a unilateral move.

    I don’t have time at the moment to go back and read the original that you are quoting (I’m in a tremendous hurry with “real life” obligations, so I just can’t take my usual time to study it). However, the main point I was trying to make still holds. I’ll tell you why I think that is true.

    The question you are quoting was about what the next step for Israel might be, and the way I interpret Rice’s answer, she means there is no specific recommended first step, then a first response; second step, then a second response; etc. She is saying the steps have to be in parallel–that is, simultaneous.

    But, in the absence of a simultaneous set of moves (such moves are impossible because the Palestinians have never shown the ability to accomplish their side of the bargain) this would mean that something would have to be expected next of the Palestinians, since Israel went beyond a parallel (in other words, simultaneous) move, and instituted a unilateral first move.

    Rice’s remarks cannot be interpreted, IMHO, to mean that a second unilateral move (i.e., withdrawal from even more territory) would be incumbent on the Israelis at this point. Israel went beyond the parallel obligation that she is referring to here.

    My take on the whole thing? She’s trying to avoid getting pinned down to specifics about first this, then that, and on and on and on, so that the administration will have wiggle room to be flexible. But there is no question in my mind that nothing she has said should be interpreted as saying that next, Israel must withdraw from more territory–which I believe is the conclusion many people who read the Times article have come to.

  12. The Unknown Blogger Says:

    Hi neo-

    Thank you for your gracious addendum. I also see you have posted a comment on Rich’s site. We’ll see if it has any effect, they’ve got quite a potboiler going on over there! : )

    I’m glad you give the Times credit for adequately conveying Rice’s thoughts on Palestinian reponsibilities.

    However, you say that you still have a problem with the Times. That is fine, we should all have problems with the press sometimes. But I would like to make a point about your issue of context, which you define as this:

    “Ms. Rice is speaking of a future in which the Palestinians have performed some act (or acts) indicating a quid pro quo on the way to becoming a reformed, democratic, Palestinian state as part of Bush’s “roadmap.”

    But I believe you are mischaracterizing the Roadmap when you say:

    “…ever since [The Bush Administration] drew up its new roadmap, it has insisted that moves by Israel must be met with countermoves by Palestine before any new moves would be expected of Israel.”

    You go on to say:

    “The key phrase of Rice’s here is “what comes next.” “What comes next” will fall to the Palestinians, not the Israelis, according to Rice.”

    Yet in the transcript of the Rice interview with the NYT, you will see the following exchange:

    QUESTION: So the — is it still then the U.S. position that disarmament, dismantling are the next steps for Israel in the expected steps on the right —

    SECRETARY RICE: No, I’m not talking about a sequencing here because the roadmap is assiduously not sequencing one step after another. It gives, in parallel, certain obligations to both sides.

    Which shows that your “move/countermove” description is inaccurate. But it seems Rice even had to disabuse the Times reporter of this notion.

    (I wasn’t aware of it either, honestly – ME issues make my head swim) : )

    Granted, the unilateral Gaza pullout was a HUGE Israeli move and everyone is of course now looking to the Palestinians like, “OK…?”

    But still, we are all are striving for “fairness and accuracy” here. Aren’t we?

    Regards,
    UB

  13. neo-neocon Says:

    I’ve added an addendum based on the Unknown Blogger’s comments. See above.

  14. Anonymous Says:

    Ah ha, you have the word verification – good.

    I am not sure if the papers have a politicl agenda or not. They definetly have the agenda of SELLING papers, and they do what ever they think will sell – CONTENTION. Some how, even if unwittingly, we have taught them how to take advantage of us.

    Gary

  15. Richard Aubrey Says:

    LGF has–at this moment–about 150 comments.
    A good many of them argue the point Unknown makes.
    He loses.

  16. The Unkown Blogger Says:

    Funny, when I read that quote in the transcript,

    “…the question has been put repeatedly to the Israelis and to us that it cannot be Gaza only and everybody says no, it cannot be Gaza only.”

    I thought it could also be taken to mean, “…and we all agree it cannot be Gaza only.”

    Then I started wondering why Rice herself can’t be found protesting about being taken out of context so blatantly by a major publication nearly 10 days after the fact.

    So I searched her remarks on the State Dept Website and found this quote from June 20:

    “I can just say I was just in Israel and in the Palestinian territories and I found that the leaders there are very conscious of the special nature of this moment, that the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza can be a first step. And I want to say very clearly, Gaza — it cannot be Gaza only.”

    So I guess she is not protesting because that is clearly her view, and the NYT seems to have characterized it accurately.

    link at: http://www.state.gov/secretary/
    rm/2005/48352.htm

    Best regards
    UB

    PS: Do you want to send that to Rich Richman or should I?

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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