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:
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.