First Draft of History (Revised)
April 27, 2002
BOB GARFIELD: We're back with On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. There's an accepted practice among journalists: you do not edit the president. And so for the last year and a half citizens across America have cringed as they listened to President Bush fumble his way through speeches, stating here that Middle East peace must be avoided and there that he wants to make the death tax permanent and many other, in his words, "misunderestimations."
GEORGE W. BUSH: In my state of the, my state of the union or state -- my speech to the nation-- whatever you wan to call it-- [LAUGHTER] speech to the nation-- [LAUGHTER/APPLAUSE] I asked Americans to give 4,000 years-- 4,000 hours over the next-- the rest of your life. [LAUGHTER] Of service to America!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But inside the White House the no-edit rule does not apply. Presidential transcripts are sanitized to correct grammatical errors and omit the taunts from jeering crowds. Even White House spokesman Ari Fleischer has had his transcript whitewashed, or so it seems. Dana Milbank chronicles these and other inside-the-beltway curiosities as White House reporter for the Washington Post. He says it seems as if the editing may be accelerating.
DANA MILBANK: They're not really inventing words that he didn't say; they're fixing words. He says the words wrong; they clean it up. In, in other cases they are doing things with asterisks. For example, he said that the United States and Japan had been great allies for a century and a half. [LAUGHTER] He said this to the Japanese Diet, the Parliament, and no doubt that caused some scratching of heads. But it was helpfully explained in the transcript with an asterisk that that was half a century. You mentioned that one about making the death tax permanent. That also had an asterisk at the bottom of the page - said: Should read death tax repeal -- as if that were, say, a transcription error -- that we just had read it wrong in the first place.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:So you think that tidying the transcripts is really more about clarifying the president's words than it is about cleaning up his image.
DANA MILBANK: Well, that's where the debate is. I believe that the stenos who do this work are professionals who have no particular interest in that. They're hired by the government, but they're not government employees. They're certainly not political employees, and they go from administration to administration. Where it's interesting is are they being pressured by the political people who work in the White House press office. They do put a lot of pressure on a lot of folks, so it's not inconceivable that they'd be putting pressure on these government contract workers. That strikes me as a minorly intriguing point. Certainly not a major scandal though.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:But there was this infamous incident involving Ari Fleischer. Fleischer said "Americans need to watch what they say," and that was omitted from a transcript. Is that a good example of how far they'll go to "scrub" the record?
DANA MILBANK: In that case they said it was a mistake that was just dropped from that. I'll tell you, at the time I was very much inclined to believe that. I got a little concerned when I saw a few of these happen in one week. It's impossible to say for sure whether one thing or another is a mistake or the pressure is being applied to somebody, but in recent weeks and months it seems that the language has been cleaned up more heavily.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And do you think that is a post-9/11 phenomenon?
DANA MILBANK:Well all the cases that come to mind have been post-9/11. On the other hand, there has been at least one case recently where they have included the hecklers, and I should point out in the Times since I wrote this article, we've been seeing a lot more very honest transcripts with a lot of ah's and uh's and-- false starts. Unfortunately that makes it a lot harder to quote, so perhaps we should have been careful what we wished for.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you very much.
DANA MILBANK: Thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Dana Milbank is the White House reporter for the Washington Post. [MUSIC]