August 24, 2005

Remedial history for Pat Robertson -- better editors for the MSM

Amid all the fuss about Pat Robertson's assassination suggestion, no one seems to have picked up on what I thought was the oddest part of his outburst, namely the reference to the Monroe Doctrine.

I transcribed the entire passage, from the video in the 700 Club archive. The format is that of a news program. We're at the end of a canned segment on Venezuela, and about to start a segment on some events in Iraq. We switch to Robertson behind the anchor desk, and he says:

Thanks, Dale. If you look back just a few years, there was a popular coup that overthrew him and what did the United States State Department do about it? Virtually nothing. And as a result, within about forty eight hours that coup was broken, Chavez was back in power; but we had a chance to move in; he has destroyed the Venezuelan economy, and he's going to make that a launching pad for communist infiltration and- and uh muslim extremism all over the continent. You know, I don't know about this doctrine of assassination, but if he thinks we're trying to assassinate him, I think that we really ought to go ahead and do it, it's a whole lot cheaper than starting a war. and uh uh I don't think any oil shipments will stop. But this man is a terrific danger, and the United- this is in our sphere of influence, and we can't let this happen. We have the Monroe Doctrine, we have other doctrines that we have announced, and uh without question, this is a dangerous uh enemy to our south controlling a huge pool of oil, that could hurt us very badly. We have the ability to take him out, and I think the time has come that we exercise that ability. We don't need another two hundred billion dollar war uh to get rid of one you know, strong-arm dictator. It's a whole lot easier to have some of the covert operatives do the job and then get it over with. Kristi?

I expect that Mr. Robertson is old enough to have learned in school what the Monroe Doctrine is. Does he really think that Hugo Chavez represents a case of European intervention?

For a change, the reproduction of Robertson's quotes in the media are pretty accurate (thus Laurie Goodstein's NYT story quotes 38 words that entirely agree with my transcript, punctuation choices aside), but there are a few oddities. For example, the story on the Bloomberg wire replaces "have" with "let", introduces an ungrammatical "to", and deletes "then" in one of Pat's phrases:

It's a whole lot easier to let      some of the covert operatives to do the job and      get it over with.
It's a whole lot easier to     have some of the covert operatives    do the job and then get it over with.

And the Knight Ridder story deletes "of the", changes "covert" to the ungrammatical "cover", makes "operatives" singular, and also elides the "then":

It's a whole lot easier to have some                         cover operative do the job and      get it over with.
It's a whole lot easier to have some of the covert operatives                do the job and then get it over with.

The Bloomberg version of the phrase has 4 errors in 21 words, for a word error rate of 19%; Knight Ridder has 5 errors in 21 words, for a W.E.R. of 24%. This is better than you often see -- and rest of the reported quotes from Robertson were generally even closer to what he actually said. But really, is there any excuse for not getting it completely right in this case, where the reporters were presumably not basing their quotes on notes from a live presentation, but were transcribing from the same archival recording that I used?

Worse, each transcription error introduced a solecism: "...let some of the covert operatives to do the job..."; "have some cover operative do the job". Shouldn't an editor have noticed this, and asked someone to spend a few minutes to check whether a highly verbal media personality like Robertson really said it that way?

This sort of carelessness with elementary facts, which seems to be the norm rather than the exception in newspapers today, cuts the ground out from under arguments about the value of editors.

[Update: as several readers have suggested, Mr. Robertson's reference to "other doctrines that we have announced" probably was a swipe in the general direction of the (Theodore) Roosevelt corollary to the Monroe Doctrine. However, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover explicitedly repudiated the Roosevelt Corollary in 1928 and 1930, as did FDR in 1934 and others since. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at August 24, 2005 08:40 AM