Politico misquote of Perriello: sorry, but an apology just isn’t enough
On September 22, Politico ran an article by Glenn Thrush that egregiously misrepresented the words of Rep. Tom Perriello (D-VA). The subject was town hall meetings and racist comments that he had witnessed. In due course Thrush’s “error” was “pointed out” and Perriello’s actual words were substituted. (The original post, corrected, appears here.) Thrush then issued an explanation and apology.
So far, no crisis. Mistakes happen, are fixed, retractions and apologies are run, the world is right again, right?
But. This isn’t so simple. First, here are the comments in question. In the original story, the boldfaced text was omitted by Thrush and replaced by ellipses. And as you can see, the missing words change the context of Perriello’s remarks considerably:
“I conducted over a hundred hours of town hall meetings in central and southern Virginia [and the vast majority of them were civil; people disagreed passionately on ideological grounds]. And there were [rare] cases where very racist remarks were made. Sometimes they were called out by neighbors in the audience; sometimes they weren’t. Clearly, race remains a factor in America, [but] there’s also a lot of disagreement here that is genuine and not based on race, so I think we have to have both conversations.”
Now, how the hell would you fumble a quote in such a curiously directional fashion? Let’s listen as Thrush explains what happened in his own words.
The video, which had gone viral among conservatives, was sent to me by a tipster. I watched it, thought it was interesting, and began to transcribe the key parts. As I was transcribing, I got an email from a NRCC spokesman Andy Sere, who wanted to comment on it, appending what appeared to be a full a transcript of the exchange.
A time saver, I thought, so I cut-and-pasted. What I didn’t immediately realize was that Sere had replaced key words — that provided important context –with elipses.
In case you’re wondering, “NRCC” stands for “National Republican Congressional Committee.”
Let’s review. Quoting a Democratic Congressman – check. On explosively sensitive partisan issues – check. About racism – check. Making sure to get those comments right – ummmm, no, I’ll just cut-and-paste from the doc the nice, helpful, trustworthy GOP hack sent me.
Which third-rate Wal*Mart did Thrush buy his journalism degree from, anyway? Okay, that’s probably not fair – his bio describes a guy with a good bit of experience, so we’re dealing with somebody who knows better. To his credit, he doesn’t tap dance. He accepts responsibility and apologizes unconditionally.
The fault wasn’t Sere’s — he’s a partisan operative, not a transcription service. It was mine.
His characterization of Sere is charitable, of course. That is, unless “partisan operative” is a euphemism for “lying piece of shit.” Sure, we know political flaks for what they are, and our expectations could hardly be lower. But that doesn’t excuse someone who deliberately falsified a public official’s words in an attempt to inflame racial hostilities (sorry, no pussyfooting here – Sere did what he did and did so for obvious reasons and there will be no tolerance in this space for those who want to argue either the act or the motivation). Fuck Andy Sere and fuck those who’d defend these kinds of sociopathic behaviors. No society that placed even the slightest premium on honesty and integrity would tolerate this sort of antisocial assault on the public interest.
Back to Thrush. The apology is welcomed. His forthrightness in accepting responsibility is also worthy. And given the kinds of insane time demands placed on reporters these days, we can certainly understand why he’d want to save a few seconds by using a transcript that somebody else had already transcribed. (I personally hate transcribing, so I do sympathize, seriously.) PR folks know that reporters are crushed for time, too. I know. I’ve been a PR guy (still am sometimes) and I’ve taught PR. One of the lessons I make sure my students know is just this – reporters are too busy to do the jobs they’re charged with doing, so they’ll appreciate anything you can do to make their lives easier. Sere knew this. (Of course, I don’t teach my students to lie and distort, and I don’t do it myself. PR ethics may not be what we’d all wish, but no professional I know would condone what Sere did.)
Sadly, PR folks seem to know a lot more about reporters than reporters do about PR folks.
As for Thrush’s mea culpa, it’s just not enough. I know journalism professors who’d have smacked their first-semester J 101 freshmen with an F that would have left a mark for what he did. There is simply no excuse. None.
I can find nothing on the Politico site indicating that Thrush was disciplined, and a site search indicates that he has continued writing regularly since the Perriello debacle. If he didn’t serve at least a suspension then it’s a clear signal that Politico doesn’t expect to be taken seriously by those of us who still have some standards for those who call themselves journalists. Once upon a time most respectable dailies would probably have fired a reporter on the spot for this kind of mistake, which is, in journalism terms, tantamount to a soldier letting an enemy take over his post for a couple of minutes while he wanders off into the bushes to relieve himself.
I wish Glenn Thrush no ill. But a bill is due, and until it’s paid I can’t imagine any reason why Politico should be accorded any more journalistic credibility than FOX News or an RNCC fund raising letter.