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Wednesday, April 16, 2014
PBS Ombudsman

Editing Abe: Did Some of His Words Die in Vain?

One of the first things that news ombudsmen learn is that any mistake in a newspaper or on television will get caught; some reader or viewer somewhere out there will spot it.

As a reporter and then editor, I always thought that was true in many but not all cases. But I became convinced of it when I became the ombudsman at The Washington Post in the fall of 2000. Around that time, if memory serves, CBS television sports had to acknowledge that it had been dubbing recorded bird sounds as background during lulls in the broadcasting of golf tournaments. Some golf enthusiasts who were also bird-watchers questioned the network after they heard chirping of birds that were not indigenous to the states where the tournaments were being held.

I've always loved that story, and I mention it here because a viewer in Lancaster, Pa., John de Groot, wrote to me last week — a real letter, not an e-mail — after watching a presentation of "The Civil War," the monumental, award-winning, nine-part PBS documentary epic by producer Ken Burns that first aired in 1990 and has been reissued this year as part of the 150th anniversary observance of the war.

In his letter, de Groot wrote that he "was appalled to hear a version of Mr. Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, presented in sonorous tones, that was modified (his emphasis) in verbiage in several places. I feel it is very wrong to present or sponsor such a thing. Not only were the changes, in my opinion, less effective than the original, but to so modify a speech is, in effect, to lie about history. . .Such egotistical arrogancy has no place in history and should be avoided insofar as possible."

A Clash of Titans

So, here we have a complaint about alleged changes to what is perhaps the most famous speech in American history — a very brief yet brilliant oration on November 19, 1863, at the dedication of the Soldiers' National Cemetery at Gettysburg, PA — that was included in perhaps the most highly regarded documentary series of our time by a now very famous producer.

Like most things, this is complicated. Mr. de Groot did not point to specific changes in his letter. I got a transcript of the address as spoken in the program's script (I've included it at the bottom of this posting) and compared it to the address engraved on the South Wall at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC.

There are, in fact, several discrepancies. I found six of them; none that would leap out at you but changes, nevertheless, to one of the most eloquent and enduring speeches ever made. And that speech was only ten sentences long.

The Changes

A couple of the changes involve the words "here" and "it." For example, where the TV script reads, "We have come to dedicate a portion of it. . ." the Memorial Wall version says, "a portion of that field." The most significant change in comparing the two comes in this sentence from the script which says, "It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they have so nobly carried on." The version of this sentence on the Wall reads: "It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced."

Like I Said, It's Complicated

The complication in this matter is also a historic one because there are five known, hand-written manuscript and draft copies of the address, each one named for the person who received it from President Lincoln and each one containing some differences in wording and punctuation. There are also slightly differing contemporary newspaper accounts, which is also understandable since there were no recordings. And Lincoln may well have deviated from his prepared text to insert words as he spoke. It is felt that may explain how the words "under God" appear in some versions but not in all. So, modern scholars, according to many researchers, disagree as to its exact wording.

I'm certainly not a scholar and am only conveying the research rather easily available. However, it is the so-called "Bliss Copy" of the speech — which Lincoln transcribed in 1864, well after the actual speech, for reproduction purposes — that has come to be regarded as the standard version of the address. It is the version that is inscribed on the South Wall. It is the only one actually signed by Lincoln. It is the last known hand-written version and it hangs in the Lincoln Room of the White House.

The Response

When I asked Burns' assistant, Chris Darling, about de Groot's letter, and the differences between the television script version and the one on the wall of the Lincoln Memorial (the Bliss version), he pointed out, as others have, that Lincoln's actual words are still a point of contention among scholars. But he also said that it was the so-called "Hay Copy" of the speech — given originally to John Hay, one of Lincoln's secretaries — that came closest to the one used in the Burns documentary. This is the second draft of the speech known to exist and the copy was said to be made shortly before the actual speech, in which case it may have been the reading copy Lincoln was holding and perhaps deviated from as he spoke, or perhaps he produced this copy of his remarks shortly after the speech.

But the Hay Copy of the speech does not include the phrase "under God," yet the documentary version of the speech does include that phrase and some of the newspaper accounts of the speech indicate reporters heard that as well.

I asked if the producers had actually specifically chosen to use the Hay Copy rather than the much more widely used Bliss copy and, if so, why? Darling said that the Bliss version of the address is in the companion book to the documentary series (on page 226) but that, "unfortunately, after 23 years since the film's research, the process by which the filmed version was selected has been lost."

An extensive analysis of the five copies as well as the news accounts of the speech is included in an extensive appendix to a book by Gabor Boritt called "The Gettysburg Gospel," published in 2008.

A Sixth Version?

So, since millions of people over more than two decades have undoubtedly seen "The Civil War" television series, this leaves us with what may arguably amount to a PBS/Ken Burns version of the Gettysburg Address. This would be one that is not based on the precise verbiage that most Americans are familiar with (the Bliss Copy) and that is most widely used as the standard text, but based more closely on the earlier Hay Copy, made around the time of the actual speech, plus some phrasing, especially "under God," that is not in the Hay draft but that Lincoln may have inserted spontaneously. Or perhaps we should call it the de Groot version in recognition of the alert viewer who called this to our attention.

Here's a copy of the version of the address that was included in "The Civil War" documentary.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met here on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of it as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that their nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember, what we say here, but can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they have thus far so nobly carried on. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.

And here's the 'Bliss Copy,' made later but signed and on the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.


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