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Saturday, November 22, 2014
PBS Ombudsman

The Perils of Posting: Transcript vs. Text

A brief tempest blew through the blogosphere and then through PBS headquarters, the NewsHour's home base at WETA, and my inbox on Saturday.

Although it blew itself out by the end of the weekend, it provided a reminder, as if another one were needed, of the speed at which we communicate and assign motive these days and of the fierce ideological prism through which so many acts are — falsely in this case and in my view — portrayed.

Here's what happened: At 7 p.m. last Thursday, Sept. 8, President Obama addressed a joint session of Congress about his proposed plan for new tax cuts and spending to help solve the nation's jobs crisis. As he was speaking, somewhere around 7:15, the PBS NewsHour posted on its website the "full text" of the president's speech. In the summary at the top, it read: "Below is the text of his remarks as prepared for delivery and released by the White House." About a half-hour after the speech ended, the White House released and the NewsHour posted the video and audio recordings of the speech as it was actually delivered.


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This is all pretty standard stuff; the White House routinely gives news organizations the text of speeches in advance. But a couple of things happened on the way to the forum, as a hit Broadway musical back in 1962 suggested is frequently the case.

Foundering Over the 'Founder'

Toward the end of his speech the president ad-libbed an inaccuracy into his prepared text. Referring to Abraham Lincoln as "the leader who saved our country," Obama went on to describe him as the "Founder of the Republican Party." That is a description that has been misused by many others, including a fair number of Republicans, over the years. But it is not correct and the president should have known that.

Many online operations, including Fox Business, posted the original prepared remarks (which also did not contain the "founder" comment) handed out in advance by the White House and billed them as the full text, as did the PBS NewsHour.

But here's the difference: the NewsHour, after its main "full text" headline and summary box noting these remarks were "as prepared for delivery," then used a routine, standard section-format labeled "Transcript" to present the prepared text. However there is a difference between a text prepared in advance and a transcript. The latter implies what was actually spoken word for word. So the initial PBS "transcript" was in fact still the prepared text and was not a proper or completely accurate description of content because it did not include Obama's ad-libbed comment or other more minor changes. This is a NewsHour presentation technique that, at the least, needs some re-thinking.

The New York Times, after the president's speech on Thursday evening, posted an actual transcript supplied by the White House that had everything Obama had actually said. PBS did not update its Web page with this at the time.

But it was not until Saturday — when an alert blogger, Timothy Birdnow, writing on the conservative website American Thinker, and citing the Times called attention to the "founder" difference between the president's prepared and actual remarks — that the tempest began to blow through PBS.

Too Good to Check

Birdnow and American Thinker did not, however, just take note of this. The headline on his article read: "PBS alters transcript to hide Obama gaffe," and the posting claimed that "PBS has purposely altered a transcript containing a major gaffe by the President."

Other conservative online outlets picked up on the American Thinker posting Saturday, including the widely read Drudge Report and examiner.com in which Anthony Martin asked, "Why would taxpayers be forced to fund a news organization that deliberately alters documents in an attempt to hide errors on the part of government officials whom it has obviously decided to protect?"

The deluge of email to PBS and to me began Saturday morning as a result of these online postings. Comments that flow into the NewsHour are monitored but not around-the-clock, seven days a week, according to program officials. On Saturday morning, the spike in NewsHour's traffic from blogs questioning the accuracy of the posted transcript was apparent, and by 11 a.m. the transcript of the president's speech, as actually delivered, was posted along with an editor's note explaining: "The original transcript provided on this page, as was noted, reflected the president's remarks as prepared for delivery and released by the White House. This transcript has been updated to reflect the remarks as delivered and released by the White House."

"At no time," NewsHour official Anne Bell said, "was the text altered to remove any language."

My Thoughts

PBS clearly should have handled this better. We have been through decades of presidential speeches and a diversion from a script or a teleprompter is not all that rare. There were actually dozens of minor spoken differences from the prepared text in the Obama speech. So leaving the prepared remarks on the website from Thursday night until bloggers, and the ombudsman, shook their tree Saturday morning — long after the White House and the Times had published actual transcripts — was a serious lapse by the NewsHour. Not enough staff can be a problem, but possible changes in presidential text, even small ones, should be anticipated and checked in a timely fashion.

Also, the routine use of "transcript" as a format to present the pre-delivery version of the speech was misleading, making PBS vulnerable to the type of flimsy, but effective, attack it is receiving, and is also something that needs to change.

But I think any fair-minded person, and I hope I'm one of them, would accept this as an unfortunate sequence of events, compounded by some carelessness and sloppiness by the NewsHour and PBS. There is no evidence that PBS "purposely altered a transcript containing a major gaffe by the president." There is no evidence that any of those who posted about the error called PBS to point out the differences in text and ask for an explanation.

The NewsHour clearly labeled its initial posting as the prepared text. It added the voice and visual recordings of the actual speech to its site as soon as the president finished speaking, so there was no attempt to hide the Lincoln description there. The idea that an operation like the NewsHour, which has built its middle-of-the-road credentials over decades with Jim Lehrer as host, would risk its credibility on some purposeful attempt to protect the president from a gaffe that most people didn't even realize was a gaffe is just not credible or worthy of the intense wrath and accusations of political bias. This is especially true if the accusations are unaccompanied by any attempt to get the other side of the story.

I received more than 150 emails during the weekend from people reacting to the online assessment that PBS was intentionally protecting the president. All were critical. Most were civil, questioning yet certain. Some were vulgar.

A Quiet but Amusing Gaffe

As for the gaffe itself, it has some amusing aspects that have been pointed out before.

There are many examples of others crediting Lincoln with founding the Republican Party. The Republican National Committee's website, for example, says "Abraham Lincoln helped establish the Republican Party." And when former Arkansas Gov. and presidential nomination contender Mike Huckabee gave a speech to the RNC in 2008 he said, "It was, in fact, the founder of our party, Abraham Lincoln, who reminded us that a government that can do everything for us is the government that can take everything from us."

At the time, Huckabee was corrected by a reporter from Time magazine, who wrote: "He gives a good speech, but he's loose with the facts. He called Abraham Lincoln the 'founder' of the Republican Party. Nope. Lincoln was not the founder of the party; he wasn't even the first Republican nominee (John Fremont was, in 1856). Lincoln was, of course, the first Republican to be elected president."

The reporter was Jay Carney, now press secretary to President Obama. They need to talk more.


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