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13 May 1998

Smile-a-while, part I: But who will correct the corrections?

Synopsis: The Post "corrected" the Burton transcripts. Their corrections were all mixed up, too!

The Hubbell Tapes
Editorial, The Washington Post, 5/3/98

What Rep. Burton Left Out
Unattributed, The Washington Post, 5/5/98

We've often thought of Socrates in the last few weeks as we've watched the coverage of the Hubbell tapes, because the tapes have presented a terrific chance to see the press corps mishandle basic evidence. All the great themes of The Great Greek's critique have been played out in this current episode (see SOCRATES READS, in progress). The press corps' willingness to leap to conclusions--and its instinct for burying exculpatory facts--have all been placed on brilliant display in this latest theater of the Clinton scandal coverage.

But we couldn't help chuckling as we watched the Washington Post try to handle the transcripts from the Burton Committee--the doctored-up transcripts that Burton passed out to spin the Hubbell tape story. Handed edited transcripts by a goofy crew with a reputation for loopy partisanship, the Post did exactly what you knew they'd do--they rushed the transcripts into print, without stopping to check them against the taped record. We haven't heard much wailing and gnashing of teeth about this--the press corps isn't about to go through another round of self-criticism--but the fact is, the press corps badly misled its readers by rushing false transcripts into print.

But in at least one comic episode, the Post went the press corps one better. Two days after the problems with the Burton transcripts became clear, the Post printed a set of "corrections." But even here, in their boxed corrections, the Post continued to print faulty transcripts--and cheerfully acknowledged they hadn't yet bothered to listen to the tapes for themselves!

We really think this takes the cake for lazy, inept handling of crucial documents. Here's how the story unfolded:

Let's start with one transcript segment, widely discussed, as it was released by the Burton Committee. It comes from the conversation of March 25, 1996, in which Mrs. Hubbell says Marsha Scott may have been threatening her job; we'll reproduce one remark by Mrs. Hubbell as a Post editorial records it:

POST EDITORIAL (May 3): Take, for example, a conversation between Mr. Hubbell and his wife, Suzanna, in the spring of 1996. Mr. Hubbell was then thinking about suing his former partners at the Rose Law Firm... His wife, however, informed him that White House aide Marsha Scott had told her that he was "'not going to get any public support if you open up Hillary to all this.'" Added Mrs. Hubbell, "Well by public support I know exactly what she means. I'm not stupid."

This is how Mrs. Hubbell's remark was conveyed to Post readers, and this is how the remark was conveyed to millions of people by other news outlets nationwide. This was, of course, one of the transcripts' most frequently-discussed segments, and was frequently spun at the time to mean that Scott was saying that Hubbell would get no more large money payments (no more "public support") if he sued his law firm. And Mrs. Hubbell's remark was always quoted as the Post quotes it above--exactly as the remark had appeared in the Burton gang's edited transcripts.

All of which would be well and good--except this is not what Mrs. Hubbell had actually said. There was a three-word deletion in the Hubbell transcripts, likely intended to further the hush money spin; here is what Mrs. Hubbell had actually said, with the restored words printed in bold:

MRS. HUBBELL: ...I am the one that has to explain this to Marsha. She says you are not going to get any public support for this pursuit if you open Hillary up to this...

That was the actual remark by Mrs. Hubbell, clearly heard on the tape of this phone call. And why had the committee most likely deleted these three words? Because if the remark is rendered in full, as above, it is hard to argue (as the committee was arguing) that Scott was talking about "hush money" payments. The "public support" to which she alludes is explicitly "public support" for Hubbell's lawsuit; this, by the way, is exactly what Scott says she meant by this remark in a widely-ignored phone call with Hubbell later that day (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/13/98). The actual transcript makes it harder to argue that Scott was threatening Mrs. Hubbell's job, or talking about cash payments as bribes to Hubbell. The committee here is making deletions, three words at a time, apparently to spin the meaning of what Scott has said; and anyone who followed this matter closely, and heard the full tapes played on the air, would likely have noticed this obvious discrepancy--as we did here at THE DAILY HOWLER.

But life in this celebrity press corps means never having to follow any evidence closely. And the Post made this point comically clear two days after their May 3 editorial.

Two days after the editorial quoted above, the Post printed a set of transcript corrections titled "What Rep. Burton Left Out"--described as "three examples of Burton's transcripts compared with what Democrats said yesterday were the actual tape recordings." No one explained why the Post was now giving us "the Democrats'" version of what the tapes said, rather than taking the trouble to sit down and listen to the actual tapes themselves. But at any rate--and here's the humor--the Post continued to print the inaccurate version of what Mrs. Hubbell had said (still omitting the three missing words), before going on to provide further comments by Hubbell that the Burton gang had also omitted!

Understand this now: two days after the issue of the transcripts' accuracy arose, the Post was still printing inaccurate transcripts--in a boxed feature designed to correct the false record! And they were cheerfully admitting they they had not yet bothered to listen to the tapes for themselves! We at THE DAILY HOWLER really must say it--these are people who simply insist on their right to get even the most basic, verifiable facts wrong.

So here is what the great Post did in the matter of these transcripts. First, handed edited transcripts by a highly partisan source, they rushed the transcripts into print before checking tapes of the actual phone calls. Then, when it became clear that the transcripts had been doctored, they printed inaccurate "corrections" of the transcripts--still without bothering to check the real tapes!

No, gentle reader--nothing whatever will turn on this incident in the eventual outcome of this whole Clinton story. But will you at least be a little more cautious, the next time the Post tells you something's a fact?

READ ON: It wasn't just in the Washington Post that the three magic words disappeared from this phone call. On Nightline, they actually edited the tape itself to make the three magic words go away!