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13 May 1998

Smile-a-while, part II: This time it's Dr. Chris Bury, chief Nightline surgeon, taking a knife to those tapes

Synopsis: If the networks are going to edit the tapes, is there some reason why they can't even tell us?

Report by Chris Bury
Nightline, ABC, 4/30/98

Inside Politics, CNN, 5/1/98


We described in today's Smile-A-While, Part I, those three missing words from one Hubbell phone transcript--and the comical way that the Washington Post just couldn't seem to get them back on the record. It's true--nothing much ever will turn on the way this minor distortion got into the record. But it does paint a picture of the way that the press corps handles basic, verifiable evidence.

But guess what? It wasn't just in the nation's newspapers that the three words dropped out of Mrs. Hubbell's remark. On ABC's Nightline on April 30--the first day the transcripts and tapes became available--segments of the tapes were played and discussed. And, as anyone who wishes to review the Nightline tape will see, Nightline viewers heard Mrs. Hubbell in this taped exchange with her husband--and those three words the Burton gang had dropped out of their transcript? Well, they weren't on the Nightline tape either! Without any hint of an edit or deletion, Nightline viewers clearly heard Mrs. Hubbell say, "She says you are not going to get any public support if you open Hillary up to this."

How this happened we find somewhat confusing. The Burton committee has sworn up and down that they didn't edit the tapes at all--that news crews were given access to unedited tapes, and could copy whatever they wanted. And since no one has disputed this account, including Chris Bury, who presented the tapes on Nightline (see THE DAILY HOWLER, May 12); and since CNN's Inside Politics played the same conversation the next day, with the three magic words plainly present on their tape; we assume that Nightline itself simply snipped the offending words from the tape that they aired that evening.

In an excess of fairness, we make the following assumptions about this apparent editing by Nightline. Let's assume that the people at Nightline weren't alert enough to realize that their edit would alter the sense of the remark; didn't realize that they now had Scott making a vaguer remark, one that could be interpreted in a mischievous manner. Let's assume, in a further excess of charity, that they made this edit for reasons of time--so their news people would be left with plenty of time for the "analysis" they so famously love.

Still and all, can we make one comment on this (apparent) editing? There is no indication to the viewer--none at all--that any editing has been done to this phone call. When Nightline superimposes a transcript of Mrs. Hubbell's remark on the screen, they present no ellipsis at any point to tell the viewer that words have been omitted. The same is true of the disgraceful edits of Lisa Myers on NBC May 1 (see yesterday's DAILY HOWLER); although Myers makes deep, horrendous cuts in the tapes--cuts which profoundly change their meaning--she never uses ellipses to tell her viewers that edits have been made at all. Neither Myers nor Nightline use any visual cues to tell the viewer that words are omitted.

Let's state here what is painfully obvious, with regard to the use of the ellipsis: this is a scholarly requirement that is taught to eighth graders, for which ninth graders are routinely marked down. Your high school students know better than this! You know--those high school students whose academic ineptitude the national press corps loves to discuss? But here are Nightline, The Today Show, and NBC Nightly News--all covering a story that involves possible impeachment--and they feel free to edit the Hubbells' words, without ever once telling their viewers they've done so, in the manner so standard that high school students would know that it must be done.

Does the reader wonder why we roll our eyes at the basic procedures of the national press? It's not as if this is some minor story. It actually matters who is the United States president; it actually matters if a president is impeached. But here are the networks handling documents as if they're dealing with pro wrestling press releases.

By the way, because the edits involved changed the sense of these tapes, they would have been inappropriate edits even with ellipses; one is not allowed to edit words at all, if the sense of a passage is altered. But the genial innocence of even the simplest scholarly requirements that Myers and Bury display in this work--well, I guess we should be thankful they use punctuation at all! Are there shirt-and-shoes rules in the editing chambers? But at any rate, as we often say here at THE DAILY HOWLER--it's all just a part of we do love to call: "Life in this celebrity press corps."