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Selective Editing Syndrome and the News
The following is a news media commentary
A fuss was raised this week when TheCBS Evening News edited out a few words in an interview with President Clinton. Clinton was answering a question from Charlie Rose about whether Hillary Clinton’s health concerns are serious. The controversy is summed up in an article in The Hill:
“Well, if it is, then it’s a mystery to me and all of her doctors,” Bill Clinton said when Rose asked him if Hillary Clinton was simply dehydrated or if the situation was more serious. “Frequently — well, not frequently, rarely, on more than one occasion, over the last many, many years, the same sort of thing’s happened to her when she got severely dehydrated, and she’s worked like a demon, as you know, as secretary of State, as a senator and in the year since.”
But the “CBS Evening News” version cut Clinton’s use of “frequently” out. And a review by The Hill of the official transcript released by the network shows that Clinton saying “Frequently — well, not frequently,” is omitted as well.
Chuck Ross of The Daily Caller first discovered the edit of the television version.
CBS News responded with a statement saying the edit was purely a matter of time: that the three seconds saved by editing the clip were crucial in a half hour broadcast:
The clip in question from former President Clinton’s interview with Charlie Rose ran in its entirety on CBS THIS MORNING, CBSNews.com[cbsnews.com] and on CBSN, CBS News’ 24/7 digital streaming news service. One clip that ran on CBS Evening News was edited purely for time while on deadline for the live broadcast.–CBS News Statement
In broadcast news, edits for the sake of time are made all the time. And it’s true that sometimes even a few seconds matter. This instance is a question of motive and judgement. It would be unethical for an edit to be made if it misrepresents the interview or changes important context. Had it been my story, I would have considered the President’s equivocation between “frequently” and “rarely” to be significant for viewers to hear so they could make up their own mind about what they think. After all, the two words are antonyms and, in context, may add to the uncertainty surrounding Hillary’s health in the minds of some. Others might conclude the President misspoke and corrected himself. But it should be left up to viewers to judge.
Consider a different edit that CBS News could have made that would have also saved time:
“Frequently — well, not frequently, rarely, on more than one occasion, over the last many, many years, the same sort of thing’s happened to her when she got severely dehydrated, and she’s worked like a demon, as you know, as secretary of State, as a senator and in the year since.”
The fact is, when they edited out “frequently,” they made a choice that advanced one narrative (Hillary rarely gets severely dehydrated and falls when she works hard) rather than another (Hillary frequently gets severely dehydrated and falls when she works hard).
When I had great executive producers at CBS News, and I did in most of my 21 years there, it wouldn’t have even been a question. They wouldn’t have balked at the three seconds it took to keep the entire sentence in the story. They would have found three less-important seconds to cut from somewhere else. They would have understood, without explanation, how questionable it might look to some viewers if they were to discover we edited out certain words.
This certainly isn’t the first case of selective editing. You’ll recall NBC’s editing of a 911 call that falsely made it appear as though George Zimmerman had made a racial remark in the Trayvon Martin death case. (A judge later dismissed a defamation lawsuit finding there was no evidence the edit was made with “actual malice.”)
The same year, there was the CBS Evening News selective editing of President Obama’s interview on Sept. 12, 2012 where he admitted he had not called attacks on Americans in Benghazi, Libya “terrorist” attacks. When it became an issue in the President’s re-election, certain managers at CBS Evening News went out of their way to make it seem as though the President had said the opposite. A number of good journalists inside the news organization became concerned, and made me and others aware of it. I recount the story in my book Stonewalled:
I should have known something was up when I received an unsolicited phone call from a White House official a few days before the second debate between President Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney on October 16, 2012. The president was coming off a tough loss in the first debate, after which uncommitted voters, by a 46 percent to 22 percent margin, said Romney won; and 56 percent had an improved opinion of the Republican candidate. The White House of official and I chatted casually about unrelated topics and then he introduced a non sequitur: “The president called Benghazi a ‘terrorist attack’ the day after in the Rose Garden,” he told me.
At the time, I hadn’t given any thought to whether the president had or hadn’t termed the Benghazi assaults “terrorism.” The debate on that point hadn’t widely emerged and I was still focused on the State Department’s denial of security requests from Americans in Libya prior to the attacks. Since I really didn’t know what the president had said in the Rose Garden the day after, I didn’t offer a comment to the White House official on the other end of the phone. He repeated himself as if to elicit some sort of reaction.
“He did call it a terrorist attack. In the Rose Garden. On September twelfth.”
I had no idea that the question of how the administration portrayed the attacks—and whether it was covering up the terrorist ties—would emerge as a touchstone leading up to the election. But the White House already seemed to know.
A couple of days later, I’m watching the Obama-Romney debate at home on television as moderator Candy Crowley of CNN asks a Benghazi-related question. My ears perk up when the president replies using very similar language to that of the White House official on the phone.
OBAMA The day after the attack, Governor, I stood in the Rose Garden and I told the American people and the world that we are going to nd out exactly what happened. That this was an act of terror and I also said that we’re going to hunt down those who committed this crime.
I now feel as though the White House official had been trying to prep me to accept the president’s debate claim that he’d called the Benghazi assaults an “act of terror” on September 12.
The Benghazi question and the president’s response are all Rom- ney needs to try to seize control of the debate and score big points. He accuses the president of downplaying terrorist ties to protect his campaign claim that al-Qaeda was on the run.
ROMNEY I—I think it’s interesting the president just said something which—which is that on the day after the attack he went into the Rose Garden and said that this was an act of terror.
OBAMA That’s what I said.
ROMNEY You said in the Rose Garden the day after the attack, it was an act of terror? It was not a spontaneous demonstration, is that what you’re saying?
OBAMA Please proceed, Governor. . . .
ROMNEY I want to make sure we get that for the record be- cause it took the president fourteen days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror.
OBAMA Get the transcript.
The exchange feels strangely awkward. Romney seems genuinely bewildered and President Obama seems oddly anxious to move on. Then, the moderator, Crowley, comes to the president’s rescue.
CROWLEY It—it—it—he did in fact, sir. So let me—let me call it an act of terror. . . .
OBAMA Can you say that a little louder, Candy?
CROWLEY He—he did call it an act of terror.
Crowley is quick with her take. It makes me wonder if she, too, had gotten that call from a White House official in advance, telling her that the president had immediately labeled Benghazi a terrorist act.
Why is this point so important to the Obama administration?
The next day, I look for a transcript of the president’s Rose Garden statement to see if I can figure out the puzzle.
When I locate and review the remarks that the president made in the Rose Garden on September 12, 2012, I find that he did not say Benghazi was “an act of terror,” as he’d claimed in the debate. In fact, at each point in his speech when he could have raised the specter of “terrorism” or “terrorists,” he’d chosen a synonym:
THE PRESIDENT Good morning. . . . Yesterday, four of these extraordinary Americans were killed in an attack on our diplomatic post in Benghazi. Among those killed was our Ambassador, Chris Stevens, as well as Foreign Service Officer Sean Smith. . . . The United States condemns in the strongest terms this outrageous and shocking attack. . . . And make no mistake, we will work with the Libyan government to bring to justice the killers who attacked our people. Since our founding, the United States has been a nation that respects all faiths. We reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. But there is absolutely no justification to this type of senseless violence. None. The world must stand together to unequivocally reject these brutal acts. Already, many Libyans have joined us in doing so, and this attack will not break the bonds between the United States and Libya. Libyan security personnel fought back against the attackers alongside Americans. . . .
Nope, no mention of terrorism there.
Where the president may be granted some wiggle room, though there’s no doubt he overstated it in the debate, is when his speech segued to the fact that the attacks happened on the anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington. That’s when he used the word terror. But not referring directly to Benghazi.
THE PRESIDENT Of course, yesterday was already a painful day for our nation as we marked the solemn memory of the 9/11 attacks. We mourned with the families who were lost on that day. I visited the graves of troops who made the ultimate sacrifice in Iraq and Afghanistan at the hallowed grounds of Arlington Cemetery, and had the opportunity to say thank you and visit some of our wounded warriors at Walter Reed. And then last night, we learned the news of this attack in Benghazi. As Americans, let us never, ever forget that our freedom is only sustained because there are people who are willing to fight for it, to stand up for it, and in some cases, lay down their lives for it. Our country is only as strong as the character of our people and the service of those both civilian and military who represent us around the globe. No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for. Today we mourn four more Americans who represent the very best of the United States of America. We will not waver in our com- mitment to see that justice is done for this terrible act. And make no mistake, justice will be done. But we also know that the lives these Americans led stand in stark contrast to those of their attackers. . . .
One might be able to believe that the administration’s wholesale avoidance of the term terrorism in direct reference to Benghazi is an accident of wording. Except that the same accident happened in those early days when White House spokesman Carney briefed reporters, when Secretary of State Clinton spoke at the return of the victims’ bodies, and when U.S. ambassador Rice appeared on Sunday talk shows. Except that the references to terrorism and al-Qaeda were purposefully removed from the talking points used to relate details to the public. In fact, one would have to go out of his way to use so many synonyms for the attackers and not say the actual word terrorist.
Taken together, it’s difficult to believe the wording is anything other than a purposeful strategy. The main unanswered questions: Who spearheaded the strategy? Why? And in what form was it transmitted to all the officials who got on board with it?
So what does all this have to do with my own situation at CBS?
In an unexpected way, it came to expose the extraordinary lengths to which some of my colleagues would go to misrepresent and slant the facts when they had explicit evidence to the contrary, which they kept hidden. It was enough to irreparably destroy any con dence in and respect I might have had for those at the network who were involved…
It’s October 19, 2012, three days after that fateful Obama- Romney debate and less than three weeks before the election. Obama had managed to turn around Romney’s advantage. The president had held his own in the debate. Maybe even thrown Romney back on his heels with his Benghazi answer, insisting he’d immediately labled the attacks “terrorism”. After being smacked down by Crowley, Romney would hesitate to raise the specter of Benghazi again during the rest of the campaign.
But still simmering in the background is the building flap over whether the Obama administration had tried to hide the Benghazi attacks’ terrorist ties. The CBS Evening News wants the controversy addressed and, preferably, put to rest. The New York producers commission a story on the topic from a fellow CBS Washington correspondent.
Midday, I’m in the Washington newsroom when I overhear our senior producer relay strict instructions from New York. The instructions say that the other correspondent’s story must include a specific, never-before-aired sound bite from President Obama’s September 12 60 Minutes interview with [Steve] Kroft. I’m busy working on my own story that day, but it’s news to me that 60 Minutes had spoken to the president about Benghazi weeks before. New York also dictates the precise wording that the other correspondent should use to introduce the chosen Obama sound bite. It appears to be an attempt to make the president’s case for him—that he had called the Benghazi attacks “terrorism.”
The resulting Evening News script reads as follows:
It had been about 14 hours since the attack, and the President said he did not believe it was due simply to mob violence. “You’re right that this is not a situation that was exactly the same as what happened in Egypt,” Obama said, referring to protests sparked by an anti-Islam lm. “And my suspicion is that there are folks involved in this who were looking to target Americans from the start.” Shortly after that, Obama stepped into the Rose Garden and spoke of the killing of four Americans as if it were a terrorist attack. “No act of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation,” Obama said in his Rose Garden remarks.
I mentally note that my own interpretation of the president’s Rose Garden remarks isn’t quite the same.
Meanwhile, in subsequent days, my producers and I break several more important stories on Benghazi as documents and witnesses chip away at the Obama administration’s narrative…
It’s not until the weekend before the November presidential election that I learn something that would shake any remaining faith I had in the New York fishbowl. It’s Friday afternoon. A colleague calls.
“You know that interview 60 Minutes did with Obama in the Rose Garden on September twelfth?” the colleague says.
“Yes,” I answer. “Why?”
“I just got a transcript. Of the entire interview.”
“I can’t say. But holy shit.”
“What’s it say?” I ask.
The colleague proceeds to read to me from the transcript. It’s undeniably clear to both of us. We instantly know that the interview that had been kept under such a tight wrap for nearly eight weeks is explosive.
The very first comment Kroft made, and the president’s response, proved that Romney had been correct all along:
KROFT Mr. President, this morning you went out of your way to avoid the use of the word terrorism in connection with the Libya attack.
Kroft’s take on the president’s wording and intent was the same as mine had been and, according to the president himself, at the time, our take was correct. All the synonyms used by Obama, Clinton, White House spokesman Carney, and Ambassador Rice were intentional. They “went out of their way to avoid use of the word terrorism.”
Then Kroft asked a question that offered the president the opportunity to clarify or at least hint at the behind-the-scenes conclusions already formed by nearly everyone on the inside: that the attacks were
the work of terrorists. But the president balked.
KROFT Do you believe that this was a terrorist attack?
OBAMA Well, it’s too early to know exactly how this came about, what group was involved, but obviously it was an attack on Americans.
Kroft had asked the question point blank. Though the president has told the world that he unequivocally called it a terrorist attack that very day, and though the media has largely sided with his interpretation, his own hidden interview with CBS belied the claim.
My thought turns to the selectively chosen Obama sound bite the Evening News had directed me to use a week before. To put it mildly: it was misleading.
This was a really bad thing.
Besides the implications for the story itself, I couldn’t get past the fact that upper-level journalists at CBS had been a party to misleading the public. Why wouldn’t they have immediately released the operative sound bite after Romney raised the issue in the debate? It would have been a great moment for CBS. The kind of break that news organizations hope for. We had our hands on original material that no other news outlet had that would shed light on an important controversy. But we hid it.
Now, eight years after Rathergate, I feared that we’d once again mischaracterized facts in advance of a presidential election to hurt a Republican. We not only had stood by silently as the media largely sided against Romney, but we’d also taken an active part in steering them in that direction.
Still on the phone with my colleague, we both knew what had to be done but I said it out loud.
“This has to be published,” I said. “Before the election.”
2008 December: President Obama nominates Hillary Clinton for secretary of state. 2009 Jan. 13: Reports say the clintonemail.com domain was established. Jan. 21: Senate confirms Clinton as secretary of state. March 18: Clinton will later name this as the date she began using a private server for government business. 2012 Sept. 11: Islamic extremists launch […]