Every Man a Media Critic
The San Francisco Chronicle gets caught playing with Paul Wolfowitz's quotes. Thank goodness for the Internet.
11:00 PM, Mar 27, 2002 • By RICHARD STARR
THE SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE published an unsigned editorial on March 1 attacking Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz's ideas as "scary" and "reckless." The editorialist admitted that Wolfowitz, in an interview with the paper, had come across as "disarmingly soft-spoken and polite" and as a defense intellectual of "considerable talents." It argued that he should use those talents to argue for "base closures" rather than "foreign adventurism"--i.e., a military offensive against Iraq's Saddam Hussein.
So far so good, in a manner of speaking. This is the sort of sharp argument editorial pages are supposed to make. But the editorialist also fleshed out his case with a self-serving and dishonest account of the interview:
"Although he stressed that President Bush has not made any final decision to attack Iraq, Wolfowitz said the frequent allegations that Saddam Hussein has been covertly working on nuclear weapons development would justify any U.S. decision to go to war.
"When we pointed out that those allegations are unproved and are disputed by many experts, he scoffed.
"We can't afford to wait for proof beyond all reasonable doubt. That is the way in which any number of terrorist regimes have, over the last 20 years, gotten away with doing things."
That would have been that--just another day at the office twisting the words of an official with whom the writer disagreed, but for the fact that the Pentagon now tapes all its officials' interviews with the press and makes the transcripts available to the public. Yes, you too can now play professional media critic at home. Click here for the nuanced and engaging interview, and compare it with the editorial's use of Wolfowitz's words. For that matter, you can sign up here to receive the regular e-mailed transcripts of Pentagon briefings and press interviews.
The transcript gave Pentagon spokesman Victoria Clarke all the ammunition she needed for a stinging letter to the editor of the Chronicle two weeks ago, pointing out the obligation of serious journalists "not to put words in [a] person's mouth and not to misquote him or quote him out of context." The paper grudgingly conceded that "the editorial provided an inaccurate context for a Wolfowitz quote" and, further, that "Wolfowitz was misquoted" in one instance. It attributed these "discrepancies" to "errors in transcribing a tape recording of the interview." Further, it admitted that the editorial did not meet the paper's standards for presenting quotations. The back-and-forth between the paper and the Pentagon was well covered by Internet columnist Matt Welch a couple of weeks ago.
The whole episode raises a couple of interesting questions. How would the Chronicle have reacted had the Pentagon merely asserted that Wolfowitz's views were misrepresented, without having already made available to the public its own transcript of the interview? I think we can make an informed guess: It would have conceded nothing. Indeed, four days after its exchange with Clarke, the Chronicle published another letter to the editor, from a reader urging the paper not to "roll over for Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. . . . The minor liberties taken in paraphrasing Wolfowitz's exchange with The Chronicle (Editorial, 'Soft cry of a hard hawk,' March 1) did not distort his well-publicized hawkishness. There is plenty of corroborative evidence that appears regularly in all media coverage."
Not to belabor the obvious, but a paper chooses the letters it prints. That doesn't mean the editors agree with the content of the letters. But a paper embarrassed by its own distortions and self-confessed failure to meet standards would not have published this letter. After all, its message amounts to thanking the paper for lying to its readers in the service of a good cause. No, like your average petty felon cooling his heels in the county jail, the Chronicle is very, very sorry it got caught. But it doesn't really, deep down seem to think that it did much wrong.
Such attitudes are bound to get beaten out of the media in an era when anyone with an Internet connection can play media critic. We're going to see increasing public humiliation of incompetent and crooked journalism. Good journalists, it almost goes without saying, will welcome this and even enjoy watching it happen. Indeed, "media criticism" (especially as regards the competition) has long been a contact sport in most newsrooms.