Omissions and misrepresentations that could influence interpretations

« previous post | next post »

Transcription practices are in the news (Patricia Cohen, "John Dean's Role at Issue in Nixon Tapes Feud". NYT 1/31/2009):

Scholarly feuds seldom end amicably, and nearly 35 years after President Richard M. Nixon resigned, a dispute involving his Watergate tapes would seem to be no exception.

A handful of historians and authors maintain that the most authoritative transcripts of those recordings include significant omissions and misrepresentations that could influence interpretations of the cover-up.

At the center of the quarrel is "Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes," a 1997 collection of transcripts edited by Stanley I. Kutler, a pre-eminent historian of the Watergate era, that has become the standard reference. Mr. Kutler has been a hero to many people because of a lawsuit he brought with the nonprofit group Public Citizen that led to the release of 201 hours of recordings related to unethical or illegal activity in the Nixon White House.

But longtime critics of his transcripts say Mr. Kutler deliberately edited the tapes in ways that painted a more benign portrait of a central figure in the drama, the conspirator-turned-star-witness, John W. Dean III, the White House counsel who told Nixon that Watergate had become a "cancer" on his presidency.

To Mr. Kutler's scholarly critics, though, the most serious failing is that excerpts from two separate conversations that took place on March 16 — one made during a face-to-face meeting in the morning, and a second over the telephone in the evening — were reversed in order and presented as part of one continuous meeting. Most of the evening conversation between Mr. Dean and Nixon was eliminated, as were any references to it.


(That should be Dr. Kutler, by the way.) Apparently in this case, the transcriptional inaccuracies make a significant difference in the interpretation of events:

"If you look back at the conversations that Stanley didn't include what you see is Nixon and Dean closely involved in a joint obstruction of justice," said Frederick J. Graboske, who was the supervising archivist in charge of processing the Nixon tapes at the National Archives. (Mr. Dean pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and served four months, most of which was spent working with Watergate prosecutors.)

I'm used to seeing journalists playing fast and loose with alleged transcriptions, including (for example) editing a video so that the apparent answer to a question consists of two segments originally produced in the opposite order and in answer to two different questions, separated by four other question-answer pairs. That was ABC News — but the New York Times, in violation of its own code of ethics, often presents "quotations" that are a combination of cut-and-paste and outright invention (see, for example, "'Approximate' quotations can undermine readers' trust in the Times", 8/27/2005; or "This time it matters", 8/13/2005). I wonder whether historians are generally aware of how unreliable the quotations in newspapers and even the video clips on television can be.

Some historians are certainly concerned about the Nixon tapes case:

"In the history profession, you never change the original evidence; Dr. Kutler has changed the original evidence," said Mr. Graboske, who learned of the disparities six months ago.

"I spent 12 years listening to the tapes," he said, contending that no one could mistake the evening and morning recordings as being part of the same conversation. "I don't know why he did it, but what he did was deliberate."

He added: "I did work with Stanley. I'm sorry that it has come to this."

Others find the errors to be expected and excusable:

Yet Ken Hughes, a senior fellow at the University of Virginia's Miller Center for Public Affairs, who has studied the tapes since 2000 as part of the Presidential Digital Recordings project, said the attacks on Mr. Kutler were "misguided."

"I was very critical of errors in the transcripts and I thought he had left out some important conversations," Mr. Hughes said of Mr. Kutler's book, "but they are entirely honest and predictable mistakes that anyone who would try to make a transcript from extremely difficult tapes could make."

That's also Dr. Kutler's line:

Mr. Kutler scoffed at the accusations.

"Are you aware under what conditions I worked in 1996?" he said by telephone from Mexico. "It's only because of my lawsuit that you or anybody else can pick up a tape. In those days, I could not leave the archives with that material. I used state-of-the-lost-art equipment. I brought in a team of court reporters to help me with the first drafts.

This is similar to what I've heard over the years from journalists in defense of their transcription/quotation practices — they're working under difficult conditions to bring us information that we wouldn't otherwise have.

"I am responsible for whatever was transcribed," said Mr. Kutler, recently a plaintiff in a lawsuit to compel former Vice President Dick Cheney to preserve his records. "Did I make any mistakes? Of course. Did I ever make a deliberate mistake, did I ever deliberately transform a negative into a positive?

"Please, I'm a trained historian. I don't work that way."

If this is really what he said, it seems to be unresponsive, since the claim is not that he turned a negative into a positive, but that he combined fragments of two conversations, "reversed in order and presented as part of one continuous meeting", and omitted or edited other relevant conversations, in such a way as to present John Dean in a better light.

Unfortunately, I have no confidence that the NYT story reported Mr. Kutler's remarks accurately…



7 Comments

  1. Rainman said,

    February 2, 2009 @ 8:46 am

    I invite everyone to listen to the conversations and compare them to the transcripts in Abuse of Power. I did it more than 10 years ago, and the differences are stunning. Kutler has denied his culpability in this case for years, and it's about time someone with a larger megaphone has called him on it.

  2. Bobo Linq said,

    February 2, 2009 @ 9:45 am

    You write: "(That should be Dr. Kutler, by the way.)"

    At first I thought this was some sort of joke — that you might be poking fun at the desire of people with a Ph.D. to be called "Doctor." But you go on to refer to Kutler as "Dr. Kutler" without a hint of irony.

    Whether, in America, someone with a Ph.D. in a non-science-related field should be called "Doctor" is a matter of debate. I, for one, find it pretentious and misleading — because "Doctor" in American English generally denotes a medical doctor, referring to anyone with a Ph.D. as "Doctor" is sometimes misleading (see "Dr. Laura," "Dr. Phil").

    [(myl) The NYT continues to use "courtesy titles" as standard practice — see e.g. "Tangled up in newsroom tradition" for some recent LL discussion — and inspection of other articles suggests that they normally use "Dr." as the courtesy title for PhDs and MDs alike, e.g.
    "SUNY Expected to Pick University of Cincinnati Leader as Chancellor", 2/2/2009; or "Tracking forest creatures on the move", 2/3/2009.

    So I believe that in this case, the article's author or editor just screwed up, by the Times' own internal standards. And it seems to me that their policy is the right one — if you're going to use Dr. at all, it should be used for everyone who's entitled to it. ]

  3. claude lambert said,

    February 2, 2009 @ 10:38 am

    Listening to the tapes is a punishing job, not only because it is harder than reading fragments of a Mesopotamian tablet, but because it is full of unexpected pauses, unfinished sentences and heavy silences that are very hard to interpret. I am thankful to (Dr) Kutler, but I never expected his work to be complete or even accurate. It was an excellent first shot. Of course the two separate conversations should appear as such in a corrected edition, but nobody needs that to draw conclusions on Mr Dean behavior.
    The duties of a lawyer are pretty clear. Dean did not explain the law, he acted as an accomplice, and he betrayed his client. That much is obvious.
    My main impression from listening to the tapes was that President Nixon had surrounded himself with cowards.

  4. John Cowan said,

    February 2, 2009 @ 4:26 pm

    There used to be, in the Midwest, an Association For Calling University Professors 'Mister'. I don't know what happened to it.

  5. claude lambert said,

    February 3, 2009 @ 10:49 am

    Everybody in research is either a student on the way to be a doctor or a doctor, so the term is not used within the research community: there is no glory in it. It was 50 years ago in some countries: my father was called "Herr Dr Dr Professor" in Germany.

  6. Mr Punch said,

    February 3, 2009 @ 11:28 am

    My father, as a PhD professor in a medical school (1950s-70s), was addressed as "Dr. [last name]," but never I believe simply as "Doctor." In the faculty of arts and sciences of the same Ivy League university, however, the proper title of professors of all grades was considered to be "Mister {last name] — "Dr. [last name]" was reserved for lecturers and suchlike.

  7. Black Yoshi said,

    February 4, 2009 @ 1:41 am

    I don't understand the problem with calling PhD awarded people Doctor. If you have a Doctorate, you get called a Doctor (if you'd like). If anything I'm inclined to lean the other way – you only need five years of Medicine to become a Medical Doctor (as is my understanding of Med in Australia at least) and at least seven to get a PhD, generally more. In the very least, it's not as though PhD people don't deserve to be called Doctor, confusing as that might be to some. Besides, when was the last time a PhD person was mistaken for a MD and didn't immediately correct the misunderstanding?

RSS feed for comments on this post