Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Tua Culpa Tuesday: Rubber v. Glue

By Joe Uchill
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Mea Culpa Mondays was started as a weekly feature to track the most interesting media apologies. It dates back to the first, now defunct, Shepherd Express website – the original posts are lost to the internet and confined on my hard drive. So trust me when I say that this is the first time in the Mea Culpa history with two consecutive Tua Culpa Tuesdays. Now more than ever before, other people are at fault.

This lession was taken to the logical extreme by Memphis Flyer editor Bruce VanWyngarden, NBC News and the president last week when each found ways to turn being accused of blame into being the victim.

For no one could becoming a victim be more complicated than Bruce VanWyngarden. After a Monday television report, the entire city of Memphis took offense to columnist John Branston's use of  “HNIC” to discuss the search for a new school principal. Coined by Joe Clark, the principal immortalized in Lean on Me, the unique term is the most ethnically colorful way of acronyming the “Highest [black dude] In Charge.”

Like policing the school baseball bat in hand or chaining student’s to desks, HNIC was a part of Clark’s no-nonsense, lawman persona. So when the mayor referred to the need for a Joe Clark like principal, Branston figured the new recruit would enjoy Clark’s nickname. Naturally.

“I apologize to those who were offended by the use of the term in John's column,” VanWyngarden wrote in an online editor’s note. “It was not intended as a racial slur but as a cultural reference to a very real and important decision facing our school board.”

“Thanks primarily to a rather sensationalistic story on WREG Channel 3, John Branston's City Beat column from this week's Flyer seems to be generating some controversy,” it began. “…Whether that was an error in judgment or insensitive is open to debate.”

To be fair, WREG is notorious for sensationalizing the entire NIC system of taxonomy. They even complained about the Lowest NIC.

Finding the true victim in the spat between NBC and Dubya is just as debatable as the offensiveness of racial slurs once used in movies. It is pretty clear who is debating, and who is correct.

In their news broadcast Sunday evening, and their Today show the following morning, NBC ran clips from an interview Richard Engel conducted with President Bush. By midday, presidential advisor Ed Gillespie had sent the news division of the network an angry note, claiming that the interview had been edited in an unflattering manner. This morning, newspapers carried a claims from NBC News that the broadcasts “accurately reflect[ed] the interview.”

Luckily, through the power of internet video, it’s easy to tell who is out of their mind to complain. (Hint: It’s George W. Bush).

Gawker, who prints the letter in full, ran a comparison of what the president said he said, what NBC said he said, and what the transcription NBC provided said NBC said he said.

In short, they’re all very similar.

The video:

The opening of the letter (read along!):

Mr. Capus:

This e-mail is to formally request that NBC Nightly News and The Today Show air for their viewers President Bush's actual answer to correspondent Richard Engel's question about Iran policy and "appeasement," rather than the deceptively edited version of the President's answer that was aired last night on the Nightly News and this morning on The Today Show. In the interview, Engel asked the President: ‘You said that negotiating with Iran is pointless, and then you went further. You said that it was appeasement. Were you referring to Senator Barack Obama?’

The President responded: ‘You know, my policies haven't changed, but evidently the political calendar has. People need to read the speech. You didn't get it exactly right, either. What I said was is that we need to take the words of people seriously. And when, you know, a leader of Iran says that they want to destroy Israel, you've got to take those words seriously. And if you don't take them seriously, then it harkens back to a day when we didn't take other words seriously. It was fitting that I talked about not taking the words of Adolf Hitler seriously on the floor of the Knesset. But I also talked about the need to defend Israel, the need to not negotiate with the likes of al Qaeda, Hezbollah and Hamas. And the need to make sure Iran doesn't get a nuclear weapon.’

This answer makes clear: (1). The President's remarks before the Knesset were not different from past policy statements, but are now being looked at through a political prism, (2). Corrects the inaccurate premise of Engel's question by putting the ‘appeasement’ line in the proper context of taking the words of leaders seriously, not ‘negotiating with Iran,’ (3). Restates the U.S.'s long-standing policy positions against negotiating with al Qaeda, Hezbollah and Hamas, and not allowing Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon.

Engel's immediate follow-up question was, "Repeatedly you've talked about Iran and that you don't want to see Iran develop a nuclear weapon. How far away do you think Iran is from developing a nuclear capability?"

The President replied, "You know, Richard, I don't want to speculate - and there's a lot of speculation. But one thing is for certain - we need to prevent them from learning how to enrich uranium. And I have made it clear to the Iranians that there is a seat at the table for them if they would verifiably suspend their enrichment. And if not, we'll continue to rally the world to isolate them."

This response reiterates another long-standing policy, which is that if Iran verifiably suspends its uranium enrichment program the U.S. government would engage in talks with the Iranian government.

NBC's selective editing of the President's response is clearly intended to give viewers the impression that he agreed with Engel's characterization of his remarks when he explicitly challenged it. Furthermore, it omitted the references to al Qaeda, Hezbollah and Hamas and ignored the clarifying point in the President's follow-up response that U.S. policy is to require Iran to suspend its nuclear enrichment program before coming to the table, not that ‘negotiating with Iran is pointless’ and amounts to ‘appeasement.’

Most of what Gillespie says is not covered in the interview is covered in the interview. But to the big allegation: If, as Gillespie’s letter says, the edited interview “ignored the clarifying point … that U.S. policy is to require Iran to suspend its nuclear enrichment program before coming to the table,” then the clarifying point isn’t necessary. Bush is saying that to negotiate giving up its nuclear program, Iran first has to give up its nuclear program. That’s pretty much a no-go on negotiations. If taking ‘the need to make sure Iran doesn't get a nuclear weapons’ ‘seriously’ means nixing pre-disarmament disarmament negotiations, then negotiating with Iran is pointless, its backers non-serious appeasers, and Barrack Obama a Nazi-sympathizing pinko bastard.

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