An Open Letter to American Journalists: It’s NOT a Transcript, and Yes, that matters.
This morning, the Washington Post broke a story under their National Security header, “Trump offered Ukrainian president Justice Dept. help for Biden investigation, memo shows.” The opening of the piece says this …
President Trump told his Ukrainian counterpart to work with the U.S. attorney general to investigate the conduct of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and offered to meet with the foreign leader at the White House after he promised to conduct such an inquiry, according to a rough transcript of the call released Wednesday.
The link takes you to another link on the Washington Post’s website, which shows the document in question. Here’s a picture of the first page of the memorandum. It’s not called a transcript in the official documents. It’s called a “MEMORANDUM OF TELEPHONE CONVERSATION.”
If you look more closely, you can even see, in BOLD, a CAUTION at the bottom of the page that says, “ … A Memorandum of a Telephone Conversation (TELCON) is not a verbatim transcript of a discussion.”
In other words — this is NOT a Transcript. And yes, this matters, for the same reason that it mattered that Barr’s Memo was not the same thing as the Mueller Report, even though our political media treated these as equivalent when Barr’s Memo was released. When political media outlets accept Trump’s narrative and repeats their story, they’re doing the work of a PR agency for free. Our political media, when it does this, is manufacturing consent.
Yesterday, Trump promised he would release the transcript of the call. So, on the surface, this looks like a petty lie. Trump said he would release the transcript, and he lied and released a summary memo. Just like with the Mueller Report, rather than release the report, they first released a summary — and political media reported it as if the underlying document was released. To put this simply, yes, it matters that Trump lied about something this petty. He didn’t release a transcript, he released a summary.
Yet, our political media, including the Washington Post, was willing to report the lie, rather than the truth.
Okay, fine. It’s a petty lie. Who cares?
Lies of any size, when it comes from a President, matter. The fact that we accept such petty lies from the President means something, too. But it matters for a far more important reason.
Today, the White House sent out talking about how they were going to deal with the scandal today. Here’s a screenshot of some of the critical talking points.
The key talking point here is that Trump did not offer a, “Quid Pro Quo.” And if you read the document they released, it doesn’t show a Quid Pro Quo of Trump offering an aid package.
There’s enough of a scandal here, but there’s a second scandal in political media that won’t get enough attention. Namely that, by calling the memo a transcript, and aligning with Trump’s narrative, it hides the fact that the memorandum itself appears to have been edited.
I might be wrong on this, but I read this document very closely this morning. If you read the Memo, something stands out. Each paragraph is plain text, is written with very little punctuation, and outlines the key talking points. It doesn’t look good for Trump on its face, because he’s asking a foreign government to investigate his political enemies. He also looks unhinged, because Trump appears to believe that Hillary Clinton’s email server is in the Ukraine somewhere.
But look closely. Did you see the ellipses in the transcript? Why would someone include those in a summary paragraph, if the document isn’t a transcript? Here, look, it’s around the time the memo summarizes Crooked Trump asking for Biden to be investigated …
“… if you can look into it … It sounds horrible to me.” Maybe those ellipses don’t mean anything. But, typically, the use of this is to indicate when a portion of a quote has been removed, or that more content is coming. Like, if I was to do this …
“Nobody … made mistakes. We were great … corruption,” Obama said of his own administration, reported the Brazilian edition of El Pais.
… it appears that Obama just said he was perfect and was great corruption. But the ellipses indicate that part of the quote was removed. And the way I used them at the top was to indicate a separate thought was coming, in this case the heavily edited quote, that I indicated was heavily edited through the use of ellipses. In other words, ellipses always indicate, “A break in content is coming, or part of a quotation has been edited out.”
For the record, I got that quote from Newsweek, and here’s what Obama actually said, “Nobody was jailed. We made mistakes. We were not perfect. But we maintained integrity and we were able to show that it is possible to achieve great power without corruption.”
So, not only did the Washington Post and other political reporters appear to act as White House PR this morning, by simply calling a Memo a transcript (even though the document warns people, ‘this is not a transcript.). They also appeared to miss that the document itself may have been edited. If the author of the memo used ellipses the way most people use them, then that’s what the memo author indicated.
Why does this matter? Our political media needs to do more than just regurgitate White House talking points and shape their stories around the President’s lies. More importantly, they need to consider that the real story is not what Trump wants it to be, but is the whistleblower that went forward.
I could be wrong, but I’m wondering if those three little dots that might show something has been removed from the memo above are what the Whistleblower was alarmed about.
I’m not a reporter. I’m not an editor. But today, I wish I was. Political media, you need to do better. Please don’t repeat the mistakes of the Mueller Report.