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.