Filled pauses and faked audio

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After a period of having her staff send answers in writing to written questions, Caroline Kennedy recently granted an interview to Nicholas Confessore and David M. Halbfinger of the New York Times. On 12/27/2008, the NYT published an 8,600-word transcript of the interview, along with a conventional summary presentation whose online version includes a sidebar with nine short audio clips.

Sheila at Snarker Gawker listened to the first audio clip, and asked "How Many Times Can Caroline Kennedy Say 'You Know' in Under a Minute?" Sheila's answer was 12, and she remonstrated that "We can't listen to two years of this! Caroline: every pause need not be filled with wordage, you know?"

But for me, the most interesting part of this story wasn't Caroline Kennedy's choice of pause fillers, but the New York Times' editorial policy with respect to audio clips from interviews.

Here's the background of the passage in question, according to the NYT transcript. David Halbfinger is trying to get Ms. Kennedy to say something controversial:

DH: Just to talk a little more about issues: a lot of your political positions seem pretty straight-up-the-middle, conventional for a Democrat.
CK: Does that surprise you?
DH: No. But I wonder, what are the biggest areas where you disagree with Democratic party orthodoxy? We want to know what sets you apart. You’ve cited a lot of examples and influences; what would be a subject that we would expect your position to be a real surprise on?

Ms. Kennedy is sensibly unwilling to oblige him, and instead insists on her political orthodoxy, in an answer that lasts about 49 seconds — at least according to the audio clip on the NYT web site — and does pack in a dozen instances of "you know" as pause filler.

However, there's a problem: according to the transcript, the audio clip was silently edited to remove two questions and an answer. This suprised me, despite my years as a hardened and cynical observer of misleading quotation practices in the media.

As usual, there are also a few things in the clip that aren't in the transcript — seven of the twelve instances of "you know", along with a few instances of "uh", a few false starts, and so on. This sort of clean-up is normal and hardly worthy of note.  Slightly more interesting is the transcript's substitution of "I've had problems with NAFTA" for Kennedy's mildly non-standard "I've got problems with NAFTA": this is a case where correcting a deprecated usage actually changes the meaning.

But the really problematic difference is in the other direction. The transcript includes two additional questions from Halbfinger, and one answer from Kennedy, which were apparently edited out of the audio clip, with no indication that this has been done. (I'm assuming, without any evidence, that the transcript itself is more or less correct and complete.)

I was only mildly suprised, a few weeks ago, when I found ABC News peddling a fake video Q&A with President Bush, in which segments of his answers to two different questions were spliced together, out of order and out of context, with no indication that this surgery had been performed ("In president, out president, fake president", 12/5/2008). Perhaps I should have been more indignant, but I've learned not to expect much in the way of journalistic ethics from broadcast news organizations.

And I accepted, years ago, that even first-rank newspapers like the New York Times routinely fabricate virtual quotations in textual form, by splicing together out-of-context fragments from widely separated parts of an interview.

But I'm still capable of being surprised that the NYT would present an audio clip that's been edited in this way. I guess that's because audio and video clips, like photographs, pretend to be a veridical portrayal of something that actually happened. So do passages in quotation marks, of course, which is why canons of journalistic ethics diverge so radically from actual journalistic practice in this area; but somehow tampering with an actual recording seems worse.

In this particular case, there was no harm done, other than to journalistic standards. The editing in question didn't change the sense of Ms. Kennedy's answer much; it just made the clip shorter by taking out a back-and-forth that the reporter used to guide her answer in the direction he wanted her to take.  But once you allow omission of context and silent ellipsis as valid editing techniques, you've opened the door to making anyone seem to say almost anything. (And you force savvy interviewees into trying to defend themselves by repeating their talking points no matter what you ask them.)

I know that editing techniques of this kind are routine in pre-recorded radio programs. A couple of years ago, I discussed an example from my own experience, which Ira Flatow (or his editors) created a completely fake debate in which I was one of the participants ("Imaginary debates and stereotypical roles", 5/3/2006). I'm not naive enough to think that the producers of radio and TV shows are going to change their culture in significant ways at this point — though I think the public ought to be better informed about the relationship between what actually happened and what they see and hear.

But I do have a couple of minimal suggestion for news organizations that aspire to a reputation for honesty.

First, we need a form of audio-visual punctuation to correspond to the three dots that are used to indicate ellipsis in text. For example, we could echo the existing typographical convention by playing three short, soft tone-bursts, and (in the case of video) showing a third of a second of a blank screen with three dots. These symbols could be used whenever significant material has been edited out. A/V ellipsis could still be misused. But at least the existence of an edit would be signaled.

And second, if a virtual monologue or dialogue has been created, by editing together out-of-context fragments, answers to different questions, etc., the clip should contain some sort of warning label.

OK, now we get to the boring details.

Here's the Kennedy interview passage as given in the NYT transcript. Segments that are not in the audio clip (either because they were edited out of the audio, or interpolated in the transcript) are indicated in bold face:

CK: Well, I think that there’s a range of views in the Democratic party. And you know, I am a proud Democrat, those are the values, you know — middle class tax relief, helping working families, fixing the health care system — those are the national priorities right now. So those are the issues that I would expect — I mean, I am a Democrat, that is, you know — I am trying to become a Democratic senator, so I don’t, um — I mean, there are issues along the way, that I’m sure that people have differences of opinion. There’s controversies in all these areas.
DH: One where you have a clear-eyed idea about where you stand on something that is diff —
CK: That is different from who? Anybody?
DH: The party platform. I mean, pick some standard. Just something that would surprise —
CK: I support gay marriage, I support, you know, I’ve had problems with Nafta, I mean, I don’t — if we’re not comparing it to anybody specifically it’s hard to say where I’m going to disagree.
NC: How about Governor Paterson?
CK: But I’m a traditional Democrat, so that’s what I want to fight for
, those are the values I want to fight for.

And here's my transcript of her answer as presented in the NYT's audio clip. Again, the segments that are missing from the transcript are in bold:

CK: There's a range of views in the Democratic party, and I'm- you know I am a proud democrat, those are the values uh you know — middle class tax relief, you know, helping working families, fixing the health care system, those are the national priorities right now. So you know those are the issues that I you know would expect, and I mean I- I am a Democrat, that is, you know, I'm- I'm trying to become a Democratic senator, so I don't, um — you know I mean there are issues along the way uh that I'm sure that you know 'cause we'll have differences of opinion on them. There's controversies in all these areas. I support gay marriage, I support um you know uh you know I've got problems with you know NAFTA, I mean I don't- it's like if we're not comparing it to anybody specifically it's hard to say where I'm #((going to disagree))
NC: [interrupts] How about governor Paterson?
CK: [continuing] But I'm a traditional democrat, so you know that's what I want to fight for.

Here's the audio clip as it appears on the NYT website:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Meanwhile, back at Gawker, Sheila took credit for the fact that the Times changed the headline (from "As a Candidate, Kennedy Is Eloquent but Elusive"):

Oh look, they changed the headline to "Forceful But Elusive." Was it something we said? (PWNED!)

There's plenty more to say about Caroline Kennedy's choice of pause fillers, her relative degree of disfluency, etc.  One relevant bit of background is the Howie Carr Show's long-standing characterization of Senator Edward Kennedy as "the Wizard of Uhs" — an epithet that some people have tried to transfer to Barack Obama.  For me, however, the context of the discussion isn't so much the linguistic habits of particular individuals — though that's worthy of study — but rather pack journalism and confirmation bias.

 

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16 Comments »

  1. Karen said,

    December 28, 2008 @ 1:54 pm

    Yes, surely, the "recommended" replacement for "I've got problems with NAFTA" would be "I have problems with NAFTA"? (And when did the NYT start spelling it Nafta, anyway?)

  2. Gordon Campbell said,

    December 28, 2008 @ 4:14 pm

    You say "I've got" for "I have" is "mildly non-standard". Strong words. I think that most speakers of British English would find "(ha)ve got" correct even in quite formal speech. (Just having a guess here – I speak Australian) Personally, I'd usually drop the got in formal writing – but I think that's a matter of succinctness rather than formality. There is potential ambiguity in Brit/Oz English between this use and the present perfect, but as far as I know no one has died because of it.

  3. Adrian said,

    December 28, 2008 @ 4:22 pm

    Perhaps CK is old enough to know better, but peppering speech with "you know" is so common that I would hardly allow it to influence my voting.

  4. Mark Liberman said,

    December 28, 2008 @ 5:03 pm

    Gordon Campbell: You say "I've got" for "I have" is "mildly non-standard". Strong words. I think that most speakers of British English would find "(ha)ve got" correct even in quite formal speech.

    I agree that "have got" is fine as a way of indicating possession, and so does Fowler. But according to the entry in MWCDEU, quite a few usage manuals have objected, from Richard Grant White (1870) to Pythian (1979), Longman (1984) and Chambers (1985).

    I don't know what the policy of the NYT copy desk is. A quick scan of search results for "has got" and "have got" on the NYT web site suggests that they allow it in quotations, but don't use it in news stories (though I didn't spend enough time to be very confident of that generalization).

  5. David Eddyshaw said,

    December 28, 2008 @ 6:33 pm

    @Gordon Campbell:

    "I've got problems with NAFTA" is absolutely standard for this Brit, though slightly informal. I would say it in all but the most stuffy contexts, but probably not write it except in a fairly relaxed style.

    It's not ambiguous with regard to tense. For past forms I would have to say:
    "I've had problems with NAFTA" (for perfect) or "I had problems with NAFTA" (for simple past).

    Formally "I've got" looks like a perfect, but in my speech (which I think is typical of British usage in this) it 's always used like a non-progressive present form of a stative verb, in other words, exactly like "I have" in American, and never like "I've had" or "I had".

  6. David Eddyshaw said,

    December 28, 2008 @ 7:29 pm

    @Gordon Campbell:

    Come to think of it, you're right: there *is* an ambiguity, but not with the "I've got"/"I have" sense, only with the straightforward "get = receive" meaning:

    I've got a high mark in this exam, but I've got higher marks in previous exams.

    Does American usage make a contrast "got" vs "gotten" here? Like many Brits I tend to think of "gotten" as just American for "got", but the matter is evidently more complicated …

    Is American usage in fact uniform in this? Might the NYC actually have misunderstood the Kennedyese?

  7. Gordon Campbell said,

    December 28, 2008 @ 7:48 pm

    I could have put that more clearly. I meant "have got" is also used as the present perfect form of "get". "I've got milk" means I have some, but it could also mean "I've already got/gotten the milk, so don't stop at the shop/store. But as having gotten something generally means that you have (got) it, the ambiguity is unlikely to be an issue. And anyway I have my tea/coffee black.

  8. Gordon Campbell said,

    December 28, 2008 @ 7:51 pm

    David. Like you said. Sent my second comment before reading your latest.

  9. Gordon Campbell said,

    December 28, 2008 @ 8:44 pm

    Three in a row. And off-topic. Sorry. Well, somewhat sorry.

    I think that got/gotten is a clue to the aspect. "I've gotten higher marks in previous exams" sounds OK to my ear – the verb is "get" in the present perfect. "I've got a brother in the army" sounds OK (means the same as "I have"). "I've gotten a brother in the army" sounds like I've arranged to have one of my brothers conscripted.

  10. John said,

    December 28, 2008 @ 8:57 pm

    "I've got a high mark in this exam, but I've got higher marks in previous exams."

    In formal American prose (e.g. the style of the New York Times) as well as in my own West-Coast-American speech dialect, the sentence above would become:

    "I got a good grade on this test, but I've gotten better grades on previous tests."

    In speech, "…but I've got better grades on previous exams" sounds fine to me, but less formal, and you wouldn't see this in a newspaper.

    But even in an informal context, "I've got a good grade on this test" sounds funny to me, in a way that "I've got a problem with NAFTA" doesn't.

  11. John said,

    December 28, 2008 @ 8:59 pm

    @Gordon's latest post about getting brothers: This aspectual distinction seems to be exactly the same in American English.

  12. David Eddyshaw said,

    December 28, 2008 @ 11:05 pm

    @John:

    Ah, thanks for the comment; that's what I suspected.

    The "I have" vs "I've got" thing does seem to be largely US vs UK, specifically in that "I've got" strikes US speakers as possible but very informal, whereas UK speakers find "I have" possible but formal-bordering-on-stilted.
    I wonder if the contrast in (very informal) American between

    I've got a new car

    and

    I've gotten a new car

    is actually fundamentally stative vs dynamic, parallel to the two possible interpretations of eg

    The cup was broken

    Trying to get back on topic, or at least moving vaguely in that direction:

    Do you American native speakers think it possible that Caroline Kennedy's idiolect is more like British English in this respect than the American norm, and that this could explain the NYT incorrection?

    (My reasoning is based on nothing more sophisticated than the observation that other Kennedys sound so different from most Americans that even Brits notice)

  13. Ian said,

    December 29, 2008 @ 2:30 am

    A crude American here.
    Sorry to fan the off-topic flame, but even within casual speech the phrase "I have got" sounds redundant to my ears unless being used as a substitute for "I must". My mother and father always scolded me for using "gotten" and I've rarely heard it used.

    The issue raised by the original post concerns me. Most readers only experience a small fraction of a full news story, so journalists really shouldn't expedite neat portrayals of emerging personalities.

  14. Arnold Zwicky said,

    December 29, 2008 @ 10:17 am

    Karen: "(And when did the NYT start spelling it Nafta, anyway?)"

    This is a point that I didn't take up in my posting on periods in the NYT, though I did point out that the paper doesn't use periods in acronyms (NATO, OPEC, FARC), while being a demon for periods in initialistic abbreviations that aren't pronounced as words. The extra wrinkle is that the paper goes for initial capitalization only (rather than all caps) for acronyms of more than four letters. (Presumably, someone on the editorial staff objected to long strings of upper-case letters, as in NAFTA.)

    Yes, this is the paper that has no problem with "A.F.L.-C.I.O.", but that's not an acronym.

  15. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    December 29, 2008 @ 11:59 am

    The New York Daily News wasn't as shy as the Times about putting every one of Caroline's "you know"'s in the transcript of their interview with her. (Via The Swamp, which wonders if the Daily News is "sandbagging" her.)

    Meanwhile, the AP chose not to transcribe the "you know's" in their interview — compare the article to the audio available on YouTube. The Daily Beast, however, captioned the AP YouTube clip as "replete with 'you knows'." (Via FishbowlNY.)

  16. Flora Steele said,

    December 30, 2008 @ 1:51 pm

    Similar editing was done in the ABC Gibson interview of Sarah Palin. Asked about Russia, she gave a long answer about not restarting the Cold War, getting along with our neighbor. This was dropped from ABC's transcript and the answer to a later question was juxtaposed with the first question. See http://beltwayblips.dailyradar.com/story/abc_news_edited_out_key_parts_of_sarah_palin_interview/

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