Object lesson: what a misplaced paragraph break can do.
By William Dunkerley
An early October news story identified China and Russia as enemies of the United States. Media outlets quoted a U.S. foreign broadcasting official (Walter Isaacson, former managing editor of Time magazine). To many, Isaacson's comments sounded quite outrageous. But, when I looked into this story, I found that it did not have a factual basis. There was no such statement as carried by news outlets. That may be hard to believe since many of us heard the comments with our own ears in broadcast reports.
To elucidate, I'd like to detail for you my findings. They indicate how a simple mistake can distort a story and result in misleading headlines appearing around the world. Here are a few such headlines that I just found in a search:
"News Head of BBG, Voice of America, cites Russia and China as enemies of America"
"Broadcasting Board of Governors Chairman makes news by calling Russia's and China's official media America's 'enemies'"
"Globalist Mockingbird Media Attacks RT, Press TV as 'Enemies'"
"Russia Today television is on Washington's enemies list"
This all was the subject of an analytical report on Russia Today (RT, an English language TV service of the RIA Novosti press agency). It included a clip from an Isaacson speech that began, "We can't allow ourselves to be out-communicated by our enemies. There's that Freedom House report that reveals that today's autocratic leaders are investing billions of dollars in media resources to influence the global opinion. You've got Russia Today, Iran's Press TV, Venezuela's TeleSUR, and of course, China is launching an international broadcasting 24-hour news channel..."
Is Hearing Believing?
The foregoing quote certainly seems to support the headlines. But then I found and listened to the entire portion of Isaacson's presentation. Here's what I heard:
"All over Afghan and Pakistan, Voice of America and Radio Free Europe are achieving great successes. RFE's very popular Radio Azadi is the leading source of news in Afghanistan, and it hosted, as all of you know, in August , the first-ever presidential debate to feature an incumbent in Afghanistan's history.
"When Jeff asked me to speak here, I asked who spoke last year and he said, Richard Holbrooke, so I almost said, no, I'm not sure I want to follow in Holbrooke's outsized footsteps -- (laughter) -- but I did notice how we stressed the role of RFE and VOA in the struggle in Afghanistan. We can't allow ourselves to be out-communicated by our enemies."
The speaker then went on to another topic, saying "There's that Freedom House report that reveals that today's autocratic leaders..."
Listening to the RT report, the "enemies" comment seemed to attach to the Russia-China commentary. Listening to the larger segment of the speech, it was clear that the "enemies" comment attached to the Afghanistan commentary. Isaacson was talking about enemies in Afghanistan. That attachment was clear from not only the speaker's pace and timing, but also from making more sense that way.
Who's the Editorial Culprit?
My first reaction was that whoever did the video editing of the clip at RT produced an unprofessional result. But then I looked further into that matter. I found a printed transcript of Isaacson's speech that was prepared by a private company called the Federal News Service. I read the segment in question, and it seemed like the "enemies" comment was again attached to Russia and China. Here's what the transcript said:
"...but I did notice how we stressed the role of RFE and VOA in the struggle in Afghanistan.
"We can't allow ourselves to be out-communicated by our enemies. There's that Freedom House report that reveals that today's autocratic leaders are investing billions of dollars in media resources to influence the global opinion.
"You've got Russia Today, Iran's Press TV, Venezuela's TeleSUR, and of course, China..."
Take note of the paragraph breaks. They clearly place the "enemies" comment with Russia and China, not with Afghanistan. I asked Isaacson's office whether they supplied FNS with Isaacson's prepared remarks complete with paragraphing, or whether FNS inserted the paragraphing. They claim the paragraphing was done by FNS. That makes sense because the sound of the spoken remarks seem at variance with the FNS paragraphing. FNS apparently transcribed the speech from Isaacson's audio, and they got the paragraphing wrong.
Where It Started
The Russia-China-enemies story seems to have been broken by Josh Rogin of Foreign Policy magazine (owned by the Washington Post Company) on October 5. He attached the enemies comment to Russia and China. Did he do that deliberately to mislead? Or was he merely working off of the FNS transcript, which presented a misleading version of Isaacson's remarks? I don't know. But it certainly seems plausible that Rogin, the RT producers, and others who covered the Russia-China-enemies story were working off the faulty transcript.
That one little mistake, a misplaced paragraph break, sure got a lot of bad press for Isaacson and the United States. The way in which this story emerged as so misleading is one for the textbooks.
The Takeaway Points
Lessons for editors? First, pay attention to little things. Even paragraph breaks. When done wrong, they can have a big impact. Second, try to get back to the original source. In this case, the FNS transcript was inaccurate. Relying upon the original video of Isaacson's speech would have been a better choice.
William Dunkerley is editor of Editors Only.
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Object lesson: what a misplaced paragraph break can do.