The power to paraphrase is the power to spin!


A simple first rule for those who would paraphrase Rice: Quite a while back, we invented a useful bromide: “The power to paraphrase is the power to spin.”

Here’s what that bromide means:

Inevitably, paraphrase will be part of almost all reporting. At some point, reporters have to paraphrase the various things people have said.

But paraphrase is always subjective. Some facts are simply right or wrong—full stop, no chance to argue. But when you paraphrase what someone has said, you will always be involved in matters of judgment.

Is your paraphrase reasonable, fair? Inevitably, this involves you in matters of judgment—and there are no rules which govern this practice. But if we let people paraphrase any damn fool way they please, they can create tremendous mischief.

Essentially, the story of the Bush-Gore campaign is a story of malicious paraphrase. The press corps kept creating crazy Standard Accounts of various things Gore allegedly said. Everyone just kept repeating those tortured, embellished accounts.

In that case, the power to paraphrase was clearly the power to spin—and to destroy a campaign.

This brings us back to yesterday’s hearing about Benghazi. At the start of today’s front-page news report, Scott Shane returns us to a very basic question:
SHANE (5/9/13): During a chaotic night at the American Embassy in Tripoli, hundreds of miles away, the diplomat, Gregory Hicks, got what he called “the saddest phone call I’ve ever had in my life” informing him that Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens was dead and that he was now the highest-ranking American in Libya. For his leadership that night when four Americans were killed, Mr. Hicks said in nearly six hours of testimony, he subsequently received calls from both Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and President Obama.

But within days, Mr. Hicks said, after raising questions about the account of what had happened in Benghazi offered in television interviews by Susan E. Rice, the United Nations ambassador, he felt a distinct chill from State Department superiors. “The sense I got was that I needed to stop the line of questioning,” said Mr. Hicks, who has been a Foreign Service officer for 22 years.
Hicks had questions about “the account of what had happened offered in interviews by Susan Rice.” But what was Susan Rice’s account? What is a sensible paraphrase of what she said on the Sunday programs?

There are few rules governing paraphrase. In the interest of building a brighter nation, let us offer one basic rule as we examine the start of Rice’s account on Face the Nation:
RICE (9/16/12): Well Bob, let me tell you what we understand to be the assessment at present. First of all, very importantly, as you discussed with the president, there is an investigation that the United States government will launch, led by the FBI that has begun.

SCHIEFFER: But they are not there yet.

RICE: They are not on the ground yet but they have already begun looking at all sorts of evidence of various sorts already available to them and to us. And they will get on the ground and continue the investigation.

So we’ll want to see the results of that investigation to draw any definitive conclusions. But based on the best information we have to date, what our assessment is, as of the present, is...
Let’s stop right there. One obvious part of Rice’s account would have to be the following:

On all the Sunday shows, Rice asserted, again and again, that we didn’t yet have a definitive account of what occurred that night.

Just in this short exchange with Bob Schieffer, she offers this disclaimer three separate times. First, she tells him that she is offering “what we understand to be the assessment at present.” Then, she tells him that “we’ll want to see the results of [an ongoing] investigation to draw any definitive conclusions.”

Finally, she tells him that her account is “based on the best information we have to date.” She says she’s going to offer our assessment “as of the present.”

Rice has told Schieffer, three or four times, that she doesn’t have a definitive account of what happened that night. You really can’t paraphrase what Rice said unless you start with these declaimers.

In recent days, we’ve been surprised to see liberals paraphrase Rice without citing this key part of what she said. The first thing she said on each program was this:

We don’t yet have a definitive account of what happened that night.

A person may think that Rice was evading. A person may think that she, or the rest of the administration, knew more than what she was saying. But you can’t paraphrase what she actually said unless you start with these disclaimers.

Rice kept saying that we didn’t yet know. Here are two more examples from that session with Schieffer:
SCHIEFFER: But you do not agree with [the Libyan president] that this was something that had been plotted out several months ago?

RICE: We do not—we do not have information at present that leads us to conclude that this was premeditated or preplanned.

SCHIEFFER: Do you agree or disagree with him that al Qaeda had some part in this?

RICE: Well, we’ll have to find out that out. I mean, I think it’s clear that there were extremist elements that joined in and escalated the violence. Whether they were al Qaeda affiliates, whether they were Libyan-based extremists or al Qaeda itself I think is one of the things we’ll have to determine.
Was this al Qaeda? We’ll have to find out, Rice said, although she plainly implied that it might have been al Qaeda.

Was this attack planned months ago? We don’t have information at present which leads us to say that, she said.

Rice kept saying we don’t yet know; you simply can’t paraphrase her remarks if you don’t start with these disclaimers. On Fox and elsewhere, many people are pretending that Rice made many definitive statements that day. It’s sad to see how few liberals know where to start in rebuttal.

So here's our Rule One for paraphrase: If a person says she doesn’t yet know, you have to include that disclaimer in your account of what she said. Rice offered that disclaimer again and again. Whether you choose to believe her or not, this was an important part of what she said that day.

In part through the lack of skill within our tribe, those disclaimers have been disappeared all across the TV dial. You ought to be angry when you see liberals or mainstream journalists who don’t insist on applying our simple first rule of paraphrase.

In fact, Rice said very little that day. That’s where real paraphrase starts.

By the way, one final query: Where are all the Harvard logicians? Why haven't these learned beasts stepped forward to offer more rules of paraphrase?

Could it be that they lack the skill to intervene in such matters? Is it possible that our highest professors just aren't all that sharp?


  1. "We do not—we do not have information at present that leads us to conclude that this was premeditated or preplanned" was not an answer to the question, "Is there any definitive information as to the level of planning or organization that took place."

    It was an answer to "But you do not agree with [the Libyan president] that this was something that had been plotted out several months ago?

    Rice's response as an answer to the question that was actually asked by Schieffer should be considered, not just her response taken out of that context. This is just one example of the lack of context repeatedly relied upon by members of the administration in their efforts to disprove suspicions they deliberately misrepresented the nature of the attacks for political purposes.

    1. Anonymous I don't understand what point you are trying to make. Rice's answer makes perfect sense in the context that you and Bob both provide, i.e., in response to whether or not she agrees with the Libyan president. The reason this response makes sense is because there was no "definitive information as to the level of planning or organization that took place." So you can see why Rice's answer serves to answer either question. Rice's (non)response is perfectly sensible: she doesn't have enough information so she can neither agree nor disagree. Presuming that Rice was in fact ignorant of whther the attack was pre-meditated, what would you have her say? Conversely, is there any evidence that Rice knew somethingmore at the time? If so, please present.

    2. Do you recall Mogadishu? We sent in a rescue team without knowledge of the situation, and the results were predictable. There's a lesson there.

    3. Suspicions arose immediately about the administration's position because they seemed determined to avoid acknowledging anything (including the date) that would support that the attack represented the "scary" proposition to voters of an al qaeda resurgence. Repeated references to the film, the pulling of teeth before it was acknowledged that "there was a possibility" the attacks were anything other than spontaneous. A reading of Rice's words in that context naturally raises suspicion of deliberate obfuscation on her own part or those who provided the talking points. It could be that her comments were calculated by her to accord with an intended, misleading narrative or that it was a mere coincidence that they came out just like words that would be. The investigation is now beyond her role but especially given what has been learned by now, her words are suggestive enough in a certain direction to at least raise a strong suspicion of deliberate attempts to mislead.

    4. Where was the outrage with Reagan down in Central America? How about W. in Iraq, or about torture? Where is the blood here? How many died because of this deception? How many votes would have been changed if W's administration told the whole truth before his reelection?

      It just sounds like sour grapes from people overjoyed by the prospect of an October surprise, but they couldn't get anyone to care.

    5. Exactly how does saying "it could be al Qaeda" raise a suspicion of deliberate obfuscation or accord with an intended, misleading narrative? It doesn't, of course, and, accordingly, you will have nothing but gibberish to try to square that circle. "Seemed determined to avoid" or "pulling of teeth" is what you see, or maybe seem determined to see, and you somehow have the false notion that it has been determined that the film had nothing to do with the violence.

    6. It just sounds like sour grapes from people overjoyed by the prospect of an October surprise, but they couldn't get anyone to care.

      That's the best part, that no one cared. The news media should do exactly what they did here and take their cues from the public. If there is a low level of competence around providing security for Americans working around the globe, why follow up on security concerns if the public appears not to care since they are not feeling personally threatened (it's also ideal to keep them feeling that way by promoting the least threatening narrative around events like Benghazi). It's not as if a failure to eliminate every little threat around every embassy or failure follow up on every suspected terrorist's name called in by every Russian are potentially consequential things the media should focus on. It's a great thing the right can't get anyone to care and the left works to prevent anyone from caring.

    7. "It's a great thing the right can't get anyone to care and the left works to prevent anyone from caring." - (written with withering sarcasm)

      You obviously mean just for this particular incident, because you skipped right over the list of huge lies by Republican administrations that killed thousands. Was your right trying to get people to care then?

    8. No. In that case it was the left's job to try (and fail) to make them care, and our job to prevent them from caring with the help of FOX and most other media outlets. Who cares if a few diplomats die or a few marathon runners or a few soldiers? Our tribes have bigger fish to fry and it's helpful when the news media understand this. Wasn't it a great moment for you folks when Candy said Obama used the phrase "act of terror," helping his supporters to seize on those words as proof there was no effort to cover up the nature of the murders in Benghazi so voters couldn't let it distract them from Obamacare and gay marriage? "Let's proceed"

    9. Personally, I think you are looking at the wrong cover-up. The wealthy are syphoning off massive amounts of weath from the middle and lower classes, while everyone talks about which group of rich politicians can do a better job of protecting us from the bad guys. No worries about the nanny government when it comes to security.

  2. although she plainly implied that it might have been al Qaeda.

    She didn't imply "it might have been al Qaeda" as plainly as she implied "If this was al Qaeda, they joined in or escalated things (as opposed to initiating them).

    I mean, I think it’s clear that there were extremist elements that joined in and escalated the violence.

    1. This was their understanding at the time, which was how the situation was described by locals.

  3. "This is just one example of lack of contest repeatedly relied upon by members of the administration in their efforts to disprove suspicions they deliberately misrepresented the nature of the attacks for political purposes."

    Look, they are hoping to throw enough of this sort of horseshit around until they can catch Obama with Beyonce. Thing is, it's not going to happen. Who would have thought? Republicans at last done in by the charactor issue.

    To name names: Alex Selzer-Wald is did excatly what Bob is talking about in his peice yesterday, but he didn't even bother paraphrasing anyone.

    1. The target here is not Obama, it's Clinton. They think enough of the public is stupid enough to believe where there's smoke there's fire. If they can present enough smoke they might be able to try it for Swiftboating in 2016

  4. Whatever the perceived failings of TDH, I don't see how anyone can deny the importance of highlighting this kind of egregious misconduct on the the part of the press. Even the Atlantic, certainly no right wing rag, can't quite get it right.

    Take this excerpt:

    And Rice, to her credit, did say that Sunday that her statement was "based on the best information we have to date." She also referred to "extremist elements, individuals, [who] joined in ..."

    The author still can't quite bring himself to mention that she also countenanced the possibility that Al Qaeda was involved.

    And just so I'm not accused of going easy on FOX, I'm vacationing with my in-laws at the moment FOX "new" is always in the background. It defies description. "Treason," "LIES," "Worse than Watergate." All backed up by the "fact" that Susan Rice definitively said that the attack was a reaction to an anti-muslim video. Full stop. I only watch FOX on these family vacations, so once a year I'm reminded how truly vile it is.

    Anyway, if Bob Somerby never achieves anything else apart from coining his aforementioned "bromide," that's no small feat.

    1. Unfortunately, Bob Somerby applies his bromide only to the secondary spinners in this case. Somehow he fails to apply his bromide more broadly to the administration officials who should have been informing the public, but were in full campaign spin mode themselves.

      TDH never explains why State Dept personnel might have reacted this way to Rice's September statements:

      ‘I was stunned. My jaw dropped. And I was embarrassed.’

    2. Somerby's bromide applies to something more fundamental. Susan Rice's statement on the Sunday shows has been routinely truncated. Not misinterpreted or obfuscated. If you listen to Fox (and also the supposedly "left-leaning" MSM) you will hear talking head after talking head say that Rice claimed the Benghazi attack was caused by a video. Full stop. That is just pure intellectual dishonesty. Her actual statement was full of caveats and left open the possibility of Al Qaeda involvement. Hicks's jaw dropped because he felt he knew the true motivations behind the attack while the official statements were too vague. Whether this was "spin" or not remains to be seen, but surely you can see the difference between the huge gray area of intentions and motivations and the clear cut willful doctoring of a transcript

  5. "Could it be that our professors are not to sharp."

    I had a hard time with that question, back in the first year of Bush II's first term, with our entire class of elites.

    Our highest professors are all wrapped up in academia, hardly the real world. Many are basically clueless outside of a syllabus.

    I think American education also tends to educate the common sense right out of its victims the higher one goes, assuming they had any in the first place.

    Most everyone is rightly nervous about loosing ones job for speaking up.

    Don't expect our wimpy professional class, except the well known minority who are talking, to jeopardize the paycheck.

    Change starts at the bottom.

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  7. So according to TDH, the US Gov't can wheel out an official to say "we dunno, but..." an it's like a freakin' magic wand of honesty has passed over the podium.

    Grow up, Bob.

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  11. Politico reports:

    Talking points on the attack on the U.S. diplomats in Benghazi given to U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice had been extensively revised before she received them by the State Department to remove references to terrorism, according to a report on Friday.

    ABC News, which acquired 12 different drafts of the talking points, disclosed that the State Department requested that the CIA scrub references to an Al Qaeda-linked group, Ansar Al-Sharia.

    A State Department spokeswoman, Victoria Nuland, specifically asked the CIA to delete a paragraph citing prior attacks that could’ve been warning signs because that “could be abused by members [of Congress] to beat up the State Department for not paying attention to warnings, so why would we want to feed that either?” according to email reviewed by ABC. The paragraph was struck entirely.

    Read more:

    1. A troll cherrypicking from Politico. 'Nuf said.

    2. It's pretty much the same news on HuffPo: