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THE DUMBNESS OF THE WHALE! Chris Hayes corrected a groaning error by–who else?—the New York Times: // link // print // previous // next //
WEDNESDAY, MAY 26, 2010

Harper Lee was ahead of her time: Harper Lee’s famous book is turning 50, though she may not take part in the celebrations. What convinced Lee to keep her own counsel? In yesterday’s New York Times, Julie Bosman wrote this:

BOSMAN (5/25/10): Less plain is Ms. Lee's response to the unceasing popularity of her one and only book. Executives at HarperCollins said they began planning the summer-long celebration of ''To Kill a Mockingbird'' on the assumption that Ms. Lee would not take part. ''She's almost never given interviews,'' said Kathy Schneider, a senior vice president and associate publisher at HarperCollins. ''That's why we didn't expect her to participate in a big way.''

[Mary McDonagh] Murphy, who has interviewed Ms. Lee's sister Alice Lee, said that Harper Lee was unhappy that in interviews decades ago, reporters did not quote her precisely. And she also had a philosophical issue—''that writers should not be familiar and recognizable,'' Ms. Murphy said. ''That was for entertainers.”

Lee doesn’t like being misquoted—and she doesn’t think writers should be entertainers! We don’t know if these claims are accurate. But if Lee doesn’t like misquotation and pseudo-celebrity, she made the right move in absenting herself from our inane public realm.

THE DUMBNESS OF THE WHALE (permalink): Rachel Maddow staged a fascinating interview with Rand Paul on last Wednesday’s Maddow Show. (For the official transcript, click here.)

In part, the interview was fascinating because Maddow didn’t play by the rules. She started out by asking Paul to clarify his thinking about the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which he’d discussed in several forums. Her first question: “Do you believe that private business people should be able to decide whether they want to serve black people or gays or any other minority group?”

The question was perfectly fair, although its utility does have a limit. But Paul gave a meandering, evasive reply—so Maddow asked the question again:

MADDOW (5/19/10): In terms of legal remedies for persistent discrimination, though, if there was a private business, say, in Louisville, say, somewhere in your home state, that wanted to not serve black patrons and wanted to not serve gay patrons, or somebody else on the basis of their—on the basis of a characteristic that they decided they didn’t like as a private business owner—would you think they had a legal right to do so, to put up a "blacks not served here" sign?

Once again, Paul meandered about, failing to answer.

By the normal rules of the game, Maddow should have moved on right there. On TV, our “journalists” are nothing if not polite. By normal standards, when a politician evades a question two times, the interviewer is supposed to pretend that she hasn’t noticed and ask about something else. Maddow broke the rule this night, returning to her unanswered question:

MADDOW: But what about private businesses? I mean, I hate to—I don’t want to be badgering you on this, but I do want an answer. Do you think that a private business has the right to say we don’t serve black people?

There’s a limit to this question’s utility—but Paul evaded the question again, and Maddow kept on asking. As such, this interview was fascinating for two basic reasons: You will rarely see a TV broadcaster persist with an unanswered question so long. Largely for that very reason, you will rarely see a politician evade a question as long and as hard as Paul did that night.

Paul just kept refusing to answer. Unless you read the New York Times, whose haplessness was put on display last Friday morning, two days after the interview. One of the paper’s top political scribes reported on Maddow’s session with Paul. And, as usual, Adam Nagourney misstated what had occurred. We’ll present a large chunk of what Nagourney wrote—and we’ll highlight his groaning error:

NAGOURNEY (5/21/10): Mr. Paul said in an interview with Rachel Maddow on MSNBC on Wednesday night that he supported the sections of the Civil Rights Act that applied to public accommodations but had concerns when it came to its applicability to private business; he raised similar concerns earlier in the day about the Americans with Disabilities Act in an interview on National Public Radio.

Asked by Ms. Maddow if a private business had the right to refuse to serve black people, Mr. Paul replied, ''Yes.''

“I'm not in favor of any discrimination of any form,'' Mr. Paul continued. ''I would never belong to any club that excluded anybody for race. We still do have private clubs in America that can discriminate based on race. But I think what's important about this debate is not written into any specific 'gotcha' on this, but asking the question: what about freedom of speech? Should we limit speech from people we find abhorrent? Should we limit racists from speaking?''

''I don't want to be associated with those people,'' he said, ''but I also don't want to limit their speech in any way in the sense that we tolerate boorish and uncivilized behavior because that's one of the things freedom requires is that we allow people to be boorish and uncivilized, but that doesn't mean we approve of it.”

While those views reflect the libertarian philosophy that Mr. Paul and many Tea Party members have embraced, they are politically treacherous for someone making an appeal to the electorate at large, as Mr. Paul learned as he struggled with questions about whether he thought the government had a role in regulating food safety and working conditions.

Reading Nagourney, you would have thought that Paul had answered Maddow’s question quite directly. You would have thought he flat-out said yes—a private business does have the right to refuse to serve black people. But that just isn’t what occurred, as the Maddow Show made clear Friday night. Guest host Christopher Hayes devoted a chunk of the program to the New York Times’ latest bungle. He started his takedown like this:

HAYES (5/21/10): When I watched Rachel’s interview with Rand Paul this week, I thought the reason she kept going with it for so long was because he wouldn’t answer the question. Is the government right to ban private businesses from discriminating on the basis of race?

And then this morning the New York Times reported that Paul had answered, really, really clearly. Quote: "Asked by Ms. Maddow if a private business had the right to refuse to serve black people, Mr. Paul replied, ‘Yes.’”

Huh? He did? Were the Times’ reporters watching the same interview I was or maybe just reading the transcript where it does say: Maddow, colon: “Do you think that a private business has the right to say we don`t serve black people?” Paul, colon: “Yes, I’m not in favor of any discrimination of any form.”

You don’t remember it that way either? Yeah, that’s because it didn’t happen that way, except in the most mechanical sense.

Actually, we think Hayes understates the size of Nagourney’s error. In fact, Paul didn’t say the word “yes” at all—he muttered the word “yeah” under his breath before giving his actual answer, which was again evasive. (To watch Hayes’ full segment, with tape of what Paul really said, just click here.)

How did the New York Times manage to bungle again, as the great paper so persistently does? We’ll guess that Hayes is right in his surmise, which he repeated moments later. The transcripts at Nexis and at MSNBC mis-record what Paul actually said. (To see the MSNBC transcript, just click here.) If Nagourney simply went by the transcript—if he didn’t look at the actual tape—he might have thought that Paul had answered Maddow’s question quite directly. But if he thought that, he would have been wrong—a point the Maddow Show went to some lengths to make clear.

As usual, Nagourney’s report was just wrong. It was unfair to Paul, and it was unfair to Maddow, who was coming under attack for allegedly badgering Paul. (This attack would make more sense if Paul had answered the question.) Most importantly, Nagourney’s report misinformed his paper’s readers about what Paul had actually said. As such, it showcased the endless, groaning incompetence of our great, hapless New York Times.

By now, you’d think that any political reporter would understand a fact of life: You can’t rely on the perfect accuracy of networks’ posted transcripts. Errors abound in these transcripts; it’s dangerous to rely on what such transcripts say, especially in cases where you can review the tape of the actual segment to see what was actually said.

The tape of Maddow’s interview with Paul was posted at the Maddow Show’s site. We’ll assume that Hayes guessed correctly—that Nagourney didn’t bother to watch it.

For our money, Maddow did the right thing when she persisted with her question. But Rand Paul didn’t answer her question, and the Times was wrong, as it typically is, when it told you different. (The Maddow Show was right to correct the Times’ error.) But then, the dumbness of this particular whale has been defining the shape of American discourse for a depressing number of years. Tomorrow, we’ll look at a few other recent groaners by the Times—including a few more about Richard Blumenthal. (As it turns out, one of the great paper’s’ dumbest errors cut in Blumenthal’s favor!)

The dumbness of this particular whale has been a societal problem for decades. Last Friday, Hayes corrected the Times, but very few pundits ever do. When it comes to political reporting and political punditry, the New York Times is amazingly dumb; the dumbness almost seems to be part of its culture. Question: Why is it so rare to see liberals stand up and report this fact of life?

Including a comical error: Again, we recommend that you watch Hayes’ complete segment, which is only 1:31 long (click here). Here’s the full transcript of that segment—though we’ve cleaned it up at the end for a comical error, as we often do:

HAYES (full segment): When I watched Rachel’s interview with Rand Paul this week, I thought the reason she kept going with it for so long was because he wouldn’t answer the question. Is the government right to ban private businesses from discriminating on the basis of race?

And then this morning the New York Times reported that Paul had answered, really, really clearly. Quote: "Asked by Ms. Maddow if a private business had the right to refuse to serve black people, Mr. Paul replied, ‘Yes.’”

Huh? He did? Were the Times’ reporters watching the same interview I was or maybe just reading the transcript where it does say: Maddow, colon: Do you think that a private business has the right to say we don`t serve black people? Paul, colon: Yes, I’m not in favor of any discrimination of any form.

You don’t remember it that way either? Yeah, that’s because it didn’t happen that way, except in the most mechanical sense.

MADDOW (videotape): Do you think that a private business has a right to say we don`t serve black people ?

PAUL: I’m not in, I’m not in—yeah, I’m not in favor of any discrimination of any form.

HAYES: Yeah, that is not Rand Paul saying yes, as in yes, private businesses have the right to say they don`t serve black people. That’s Rand Paul saying, "Yeah, despite the fact that we’re talking over each other and there`s a delay in the transmission, I can hear you."

The transcript’s technically right and totally misleading, if you haven’t done your homework and watched the segment before summarizing. This stuff’s important. It’s worth another step to make sure we’re all having the right discussion of the original discussion.

Again, Hayes’ basic analysis is correct. But he’s wrong when he says that the MSNBC transcript is “technically right”—it simply isn’t.

By the way, how wrong can official transcripts be? Such transcripts are often comically wrong. Years ago, Howard Mortman started the practice of collecting these comical howlers. And sure enough! One such howler appears in the official Nexis/MSNBC transcript of Hayes’ final paragraph:

HAYES, ACCORDING TO OFFICIAL NEXIS/MSNBC TRANSCRIPT: The transcript’s technically right and totally misleading if you haven’t done your homework and watched the segment before sun rising. This stuff’s important. It’s worth another step to make sure we’re all having the right discussion of the original discussion.

Here at THE HOWLER, we changed the comically inaccurate “before sun rising” to the accurate “before summarizing.” But then, everyone knows you have to be careful with these transcripts—everyone except the most experienced political reporter at the inept New York Times.

This newspaper is stupefyingly inept—has been for years. Dumbness is part of this newspaper’s culture. Why do so few liberals say so?