November 10, 2005

"I don't think that's accurate"? I don't think that's accurate

The official transcripts archived at the White House website tend to be relatively trustworthy representations of public speaking by President Bush and other officials. The transcribers apparently feel no compulsion to clean up the notorious disfluencies of the President (as with his recent substitution of "marriage" for "merits" when introducing Samuel Alito, or his frequent use of the singular copula with a plural noun phrase). But there's a controversy over the White House transcript of a press briefing by the President's mouthpiece, Scott McClellan, and it's not over some nitpicky grammatical point like subject-verb agreement. Rather, it's over a statement that could have serious legal implications in the ongoing CIA leak investigation.

At issue is a short response McClellan interjected into a question from NBC News correspondent David Gregory at the Oct. 31 press briefing. First, here is a transcript of the exchange as provided by the Federal News Service and archived by LexisNexis:

Q Whether there's a question of legality, we know for a fact that there was involvement. We know that Karl Rove, based on what he and his lawyer have said, did have a conversation about somebody who Patrick Fitzgerald said was a covert officer of the Central Intelligence Agency. We know that Scooter Libby also had conversations.

MR. MCCLELLAN: That's accurate.

Now here is the official White House transcript:

Q Whether there's a question of legality, we know for a fact that there was involvement. We know that Karl Rove, based on what he and his lawyer have said, did have a conversation about somebody who Patrick Fitzgerald said was a covert officer of the Central Intelligence Agency. We know that Scooter Libby also had conversations.

MR. McCLELLAN: I don't think that's accurate.

The question is transcribed exactly the same, but the answer is obviously quite a bit different. Congressional Quarterly agreed with the FNS transcript of "that's accurate" and also published it that way. But when White House officials discovered the diverging transcriptions, they asked CQ and FNS to change their version to match the official one, according to a Nov. 7 article in CQ by Chris Lehmann (text provided by Wonkette, aka Ana Marie Cox, who happens to be married to Lehmann):

When the White House noted the discrepancy, officials asked CQ editors to revisit the wording of McClellan's reply. This was curiouser still, since while one could conceivably argue that McClellan tripped over his intention to say "That's inaccurate," his delivery is far too rapid-fire for the expansive wording "No, I don't think that's accurate."

CQ Transcriptions has declined to alter its account; FNS has not done so, either.

The video supplied on the White House website certainly seems to support Lehmann's account. (You can find the relevant portion at about 5:30 in the White House video, or you can just watch the excerpt given on the Think Progress blog.) There is simply no way that McClellan could have fit "I don't think..." before "...that's accurate," unless the video is somehow missing a crucial second or two. Nonetheless, the White House continues to stand behind the official transcript, as reported by Editor and Publisher:

White House press office spokeswoman Dana Perino confirmed that her office had requested a review of the transcripts, noting, "it was simply to point out that the official transcript by the White House stenographer had it as it was released and that is all it was," she said, saying the White House transcript was never altered.

When asked about the fact that the White House version contradicts video accounts of the briefing, Perino added, "the White House stenographer was in the room and I was in the room" and they heard McClellan say "I don't think that's accurate'."

It's a mysterious case, one that already has bloggers invoking Orwell and vanishing commissars. It doesn't seem possible that the White House video could have skipped over the first segment of McClellan's response, if there are indeed multiple recordings of the exchange that have him saying only "That's accurate." So how else to explain the account of Perino and the stenographer? Did they hear what they wanted to hear?

In his CQ article, Lehmann begins by noting that "semantics can loom large in the history of a White House scandal" and compares the transcript dispute to Bill Clinton's famous rumination over "what the meaning of the word 'is' is." Lehmann concludes that "complaints about inaccuracy may ultimately depend on what the meaning of 'accurate' is." But this is not a semantic question about the meaning of the word accurate. It's a question of how the government and the media go about making authoritative representations of public discourse in print and audiovisual forms, and who we trust to make those representations. It just so happens that these issues of representational accuracy hinge on a legally charged piece of discourse about accuracy itself.

[Update #1: On the general subject of Scott McClellan's pragmatic opacity, see this post from Polyglot Conspiracy detailing McClellan's wanton disregard for Gricean maxims.]

[Update #2: Nancy Wiegand of the University of Michigan sends along an excellent analysis of the situation, which is worth reproducing in its entirety:

There's just no way that McClellan ever wanted to admit in a press briefing that the situation as described by David Gregory in the opening sentence of his question was "accurate". So why would he say it? There's just something way the hell wrong with that picture, that any explanation of the discrepancy between the CQ/FNS transcripts and the WH version has to take into account.

You (and others) are absolutely right-this is no slip of the tongue or grammatical error, he does have a rapid-fire delivery, and there is absolutely no room for him to have included "I don't think" between the end of the question and "that's accurate". But it's also true that turn-taking is not that cut and dried in many if not most heated conversations, ones where one or both speakers have a position to maintain or a point to prove and are feeling under considerable pressure to do so. So off I went to look at the video clip, thinking it was perhaps possible that McClellan had begun talking, and uttered the "missing" 3 words, before the questioner had finished.

Well, having watched the video excerpt several times, it's pretty hard to tell whether his mouth starts moving before the end of the question, though there's certainly a case to be made that it does. And I don't think you can actually hear him speaking. (But I also grew up as the daughter of a sound recording engineer, who taught a couple generations of Hollywood sound men, so the mantra "your soundtrack is only as good as your boom man" comes immediately to mind. Okay, I'm dating myself, but nevermind.) Gregory's voice is louder and clearer than McClellan's. I don't know how these things are taped, but isn't it possible that a comment by McClellan "underneath" the voice of the questioner wouldn't be picked up?

So, as I said, the evidence for mouth movements is difficult to interpret. It's a small picture on my computer screen, not close up, and it goes by fast without me being able to pause it.

But there was other evidence that is in fact much clearer support for the "interjected comment" hypothesis. It's the body language.

Look at him. He starts out listening readily. Then his mouth opens, and closes again. He's almost immediately got something in his mind that he wants to say, and he's just waiting for the question to stop so he can say it. He nods. ("Yes, I've got your gist, I'm ready to reply."). At this point, his expression is still open — he's listening, though he's also blinking more. He nods again. But as the question keeps going on, he gets impatient to be able to make his point. He gets more tight lipped. He shifts his balance from one foot to the other, then back. (If I wanted to be unkind, I'd say he looks like my 8-year-old son when he really needs to pee.) He kind of twists his head around a bit, as if his collar is bothering him. And then, the most telling point, he gets tight lipped, Gregory stops for a breath, and as McClellan speaks, he shakes his head. It's a quick shake, so it goes by really fast, but it's there.

And in fact — more evidence still — it wasn't the end of the question at all. McClellan's comment, whichever it was, is interjected into the middle of Gregory's speech, at basically the first possibility, and there is hardly a split second between when he finishes and Gregory continues with the rest of his question ("So aside from the question of legality here, you were wrong.") McClellan is bound and determined to take the very first chance to contradict what Gregory is saying.

There is simply no way that McClellan looks and acts like a person who is agreeing with the person who is speaking to him so aggressively, aiming his question in the hard-hitting tone of someone wanting to put the questionee on the defensive. And, come to think of it, Gregory doesn't appear to take McClellan's comment as agreement — he goes right on, ... "you were wrong".

I agree with Wiegand's dissection of McClellan's delivery, and I think that all of the paralinguistic cues may have informed the White House stenographer's interpretation of McClellan's interjection. But based on the video evidence I still don't see how the beginning of McClellan's comment could have occurred "underneath" Gregory's voice. I chalk it up to a slip of the tongue, perhaps due to overeagerness on McClellan's part to make an interjection. It's just perplexing that Dana Perino could not have simply said that McClellan intended to say that he didn't think Gregory's point was accurate. There seems to be a great deal at stake in fixing an apparent slip in the transcript itself.]

[Update #3: McClellan has addressed the issue in his typically opaque manner in an interview with Newsweek:

On Friday, McClellan told NEWSWEEK that he had reviewed the video and requested White House stenographers to "take another look." "If there's something wrong, we'll correct it immediately," he said, denying the White House had intentionally altered the transcript. McClellan would not say if he misspoke, but told NEWSWEEK he "disagreed" with Gregory's statement that Fitzgerald had described Plame as a "covert officer."]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at November 10, 2005 01:44 PM