The White House's War on Transcripts

Poor Lied To ScottyUsually, the White House just puts words into Scott McClellan's mouth. Last week, the press office tried to wrench them into the transcripts of White House briefings provided by CQ and the Federal News Service. At issue: McClellan's uncharacteristically candid affirmation of a statement by NBC's David Gregory, set forth by CQ and FNS as:

One Version
The White House heard it differently:
Second Version
The thoughtful White House press operation called CQ and FNS to complain. Er, to correct. Media maven Dana Perino told CQ she “just [wanted] to let you know it is not accurate, as you had it in the transcript.” Also, she added, war is peace and freedom is slavery. FYI.

Full CQ story after the jump. DISCLAIMER: We hesitate to rob CQ of their $35K a year per sub by providing this article free of charge, especially since some portion of that fee pays the rent. Another portion goes for the gin. Also, Chris Lehmann is my husband.

Watch for yourself here. The exchange starts about 5:30 into the briefing.


Nov. 7, 2005 – Page 2956

A White House Word War

By Chris Lehmann, CQ Staff

Semantics can loom large in the history of a White House scandal. Admiral John Poindexter surrendered much of the fast-dwindling public sympathy at his disposal when his mind-bending expression “plausible deniability” came to light in the 1986 Iran-Contra hearings. And “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is” are words that will forever haunt the legacy of Bill Clinton.

So it was a matter of some consequence at the Oct. 31 White House press briefing when presidential spokesman Scott McClellan appeared to confirm the premise of a combative question from NBC News correspondent David Gregory. Gregory was reminding the press secretary that he had previously disavowed any involvement by either I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby or Karl Rove in the disclosure of CIA operative Valerie Plame’s identity to the press — based on assurances McClellan said he’d obtained from both top White House officials. When Gregory said, “We know in fact there was involvement,” and went on to describe special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald’s findings about Rove and Libby’s dealings with the press, McClellan quickly introjected words that seem pretty clearly to be “That’s accurate.” (Readers can view a video clip of the briefing here.)

And that is how McClellan’s remark appears in the transcripts sold by CQ Transcriptions, an arm of Congressional Quarterly Inc., and the Federal News Service. However, the White House’s own transcript has McClellan saying very much the opposite: “No, I don’t think that’s accurate.” And when the White House noted the discrepancy, officials asked CQ editors to revisit the wording of McClellan’s reply. This was curiouser still, since while one could conceivably argue that McClellan tripped over his intention to say “That’s inaccurate,” his delivery is far too rapid-fire for the expansive wording “No, I don’t think that’s accurate.”

CQ Transcriptions has declined to alter its account; FNS has not done so, either.

McClellan was with the president in South America at the end of last week and did not reply to an e-mail seeking comment. But one of his deputies, Dana Perino, says that the press office is simply trying to set the record straight. “I was in the room,” she says. “Scott and David Gregory were speaking at the same time, so it was a little hard to follow. But he did say ‘It is not accurate.’ Our official stenographer says that’s what he said.” The press office’s call to CQ was “just to let you know it is not accurate, as you had it in the transcript,” she says. Perino also advises that the topical urgency of the subject doesn’t merit much in the way of public mention: “You’re doing an item on this? I don’t think it’s news.”

Of course, news is in the eye of the beholder — just as complaints about inaccuracy may ultimately depend on what the meaning of “accurate” is.


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