In your view, what did Rice say: We awoke this morning to NBC’s Tracie Potts. She was paraphrasing Susan Rice on the cable show, Early Look.
We can find no record of what Potts said, though her very unhelpful paraphrase turned on a key word—“spontaneous.”
But in yesterday morning’s New York Times, reporter Mark Landler offered this Standard Paraphrase of What Rice Really Said. We don’t think this is good work:
LANDLER (11/15/12): In his first formal news conference in eight months, which was meant to position Mr. Obama for the coming fiscal battles but ended up including a C.I.A. scandal and a vitriolic fight over who is to blame for the attack on the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, the president saved his most fiery words to defend his ambassador to the United Nations, Susan E. Rice. Ms. Rice, a candidate for secretary of state, has come under withering attack from Senator John McCain and other Republicans for suggesting that the siege in Benghazi that killed four Americans was a spontaneous protest rather than a premeditated terrorist attack.Question: Did Susan Rice really “suggest that the siege in Benghazi that killed four Americans was a spontaneous protest rather than a premeditated terrorist attack?”
For ourselves, we would say no. Explanation below.
Beyond that, is that highlighted passage Landler’s account of what Rice “suggested?” Or is this simply his account of what John McCain has been saying?
Landler leaves this point unresolved, as timorous journalists frequently do. At no point does he clearly say, in his own voice, what Susan Rice actually said.
As journalism, Landler’s account is cotton candy—a very flimsy attempt to report What Rice Said. But it’s also a very standard account, a version of a Standard Paraphrase which has come to rule the press corps.
For ourselves, that wouldn’t be our paraphrase of Rice’s remarks on those Sunday programs. But before we offer our account, let’s consider a few puzzles which lurk in the press corps’ Standard Paraphrase:
Puzzle: Presumably, an attack by a terrorist group could be “spontaneous” in some way. But in our Standard Pundit Discussion, this possibility is routinely treated as a contradiction. Why?
Puzzle: Presumably, a terrorist group could stage an attack in response to an insulting video. But in our Standard Pundit Discussion, this possibility is generally seen as absurd, though Landler skips this point.
Whatever! The press has accepted a standard version of Rice’s remarks; the word “spontaneous” plays a key role in this Standard Paraphrase. Before we say why we think that’s unwise, let’s look at the CIA talking-points from which Rice was apparently working on those Sunday programs.
With some excitement, CBS News unveiled these talking points yesterday, not seeming to realize that the relevant part of these talking points was unveiled four weeks ago. Whatever! According to CBS, these are the talking points from which Rice was working that Sunday:
Text of CIA talking points given to Rice:CBS unveiled those points yesterday. But uh-oh! The Washington Post’s David Ignatius quoted the first two paragraphs, word for word, in a column four weeks ago.
The currently available information suggests that the demonstrations in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the US Embassy in Cairo and evolved into a direct assault against the US diplomatic post in Benghazi and subsequently its annex. There are indications that extremists participated in the violent demonstrations.
This assessment may change as additional information is collected and analyzed and as currently available information continues to be evaluated.
The investigation is on-going, and the US Government is working with Libyan authorities to bring to justice those responsible for the deaths of US citizens.
Can we talk? If those are the talking points Rice was provided, she had very little to work with. Those talking points provide little detail about what happened that night at the consulate.
That said, Rice’s statements on the Sunday shows closely tracked those talking points—although she sharpened the chronology of the fateful evening’s events.
Rather clearly, Rice’s chronology featured two distinct parts. First, a protest began at the consulate in a “spontaneous” fashion (just as the CIA talking points said). Then, extremists armed with heavy weapons hijacked the proceedings and presumably, the killings began.
That’s the way Rice told the story on Meet the Press. Beyond that, please note her many warnings that this was a preliminary assessment:
RICE (9/16/12): Well, let me tell you the best information we have at present.That account follows the CIA talking points closely, although it sharpens the time line a bit. (We direct your attention to two key words: “initially” and “then.”)
First of all, there is an FBI investigation, which is ongoing, and we look to that investigation to give us the definitive word as to what transpired. But putting together the best information that we have available to us today, our current assessment is that what happened in Benghazi was, in fact, initially a spontaneous reaction to what had just transpired hours before in Cairo—almost a copycat of the demonstrations against our facility in Cairo, which were prompted, of course, by the video.
What we think then transpired in Benghazi is that opportunistic extremist elements came to the consulate as this was unfolding. They came with heavy weapons, which, unfortunately, are readily available in post-revolutionary Libya, and that escalated into a much more violent episode.
Obviously, that's our best judgment now. We'll await the results of the investigation, and the president has been very clear—we'll work with the Libyan authorities to bring those responsible to justice.
As Rice told the story on Meet the Press, the story had two parts:
A demonstration was occurring in reaction to the events in Cairo. (It now seems there was no such demonstration, although we still wouldn’t bet grandma’s farm on this point.) Then, “extremist elements” armed “with heavy weapons” “came to the consulate as this was unfolding.”
On two other programs, Rice said these extremists “hijacked” the ongoing events. But in her rendition, it’s fairly clear that these heavily armed extremists were the ones who produced the killings.
Were these heavily armed extremists angered by the video? Rice didn’t say. Was this a “premeditated” attack (whatever that might be taken to mean)? Again, she didn’t say—although she was asked a specific question about premeditation on Face the Nation.
Bob Schieffer’s question was highly specific. He referred to an earlier claim by a Libyan office holder:
SCHIEFFER (9/16/12): But you do not agree with him that this was something that had been plotted out several months ago?Once again, Rice issued a double caveat. She said they didn’t have information at present which led them to conclude that there had been premeditation.
RICE: We do not—we do not have information at present that leads us to conclude that this was premeditated or preplanned.
Note to the slow: This doesn't mean that Rice rejected the idea that there was premeditation or planning. And the specific question to which she responded involved the possibility that the attack had been planned “several months ago.”
It was in that context that Rice made her provisional statement about premeditation. To this day, is there any evidence of prior planning extending back several months? We don’t know the answer to that. Neither do the hordes of pseudo-journalists who clown around on your TV machines, reciting versions of their Standard Group Paraphrase and often saying or suggesting that Rice’s account was weirdly wrong.
That said, let’s return to the version of this paraphrase offered in yesterday’s New York Times. As citizens read yesterday’s Times, this is the mush they were served:
“Rice has come under withering attack...for suggesting that the siege in Benghazi that killed four Americans was a spontaneous protest rather than a premeditated terrorist attack.”
But did Susan Rice say or suggest that the deadly siege “was a spontaneous protest?” Not really, no. She said a spontaneous protest was underway when heavily armed extremists arrived and hijacked events. (Presumably, the killings resulted from that hijacking, not from the earlier protest.)
Did Susan Rice say or suggest that the deadly siege wasn’t “a premeditated terrorist attack?” Not really, no—although this part of the paraphrase has two separate components. First, she rather clearly seemed to say the killings were done by “extremists.” In case that wasn’t strong enough, Schieffer specifically asked her about al Qaeda.
In reply, Rice told him this:
SCHIEFFER (9/16/12): Do you agree or disagree with [the Libyan congressional leader] that al Qaeda had some part in this?In that response, was Rice saying or suggesting that this wasn’t done by “terrorists?” We would have to say no. She said the violence was clearly done by extremists—and she said we would have to determine if they were “al Qaeda itself.”
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.
Beyond that, she didn’t state a final judgment as to premeditation or preplanning, whatever that might be taken to mean. (Schieffer asked about a level of premeditation which would have extended back months.)
For our money, Landler’s paraphrase is quite shaky, although it’s also thoroughly standard. Where does such Standard Paraphrase come from? We’ll offer four ideas:
The press corps’ intellectual weakness: Again and again, our mainstream press corps just isn’t real sharp. Down through the years, they have shown amazingly little skill at explaining What People Said. If engineers conducted their work the way these people write news reports, every bridge in the fifty states would have collapsed by now.So how about it! Paraphrase will always be a basic part of journalism. How would you paraphrase Rice’s remarks? What would you say she said?
The press corps’ moral cowardice: The standard paraphrase of Rice has come from powerful partisan sources, including John McCain. The press corps, reeking of moral cowardice, still defers to this heralded figure, although it has been clear for years that he is now borderline crazy. In a rational world, their past deference to McCain would have been seen as a national scandal. But you don’t live in such a world—and the deference lingers on.
The press corps’ desire for simple stories: Your press corps loves to tell stories, the simpler the story the better. (Headline in the sports section of today’s Times: “N.B.A. Sees Some Quiet Story Lines Emerging.” Oh goody!) Early on, the GOP handed them a very simple, very aggressive story about What Susan Rice Said. Lacking skill and full of fear, the press corps was soon reciting.
Pseudo-liberal indolence: As this script took shape in the past two months, the liberal world was silent. Incredibly, Rice’s name was never mentioned on the Rachel Maddow Show—or on The Last Word or Hardball, or on Politics Nation or on the Ed Show. No one challenged the Standard Paraphrase which was setting down roots in the press corps. As liberals slumbered at their desks, the GOP’s Standard Account took shape—and it still rules the press.
(In the same way, a group of Standard Paraphrases came to define Campaign 2000. Al Gore said he inspired Love Story! Al Gore said he invented the Internet! All the pundits repeated these claims. All the liberals hid.)
If we had to paraphrase Rice’s remarks, this is what we would say. We’re including the more significant things she said, as paraphrase typically works.
Speaking on the Sunday programs, Ambassador Rice said that a group of heavily armed extremists launched the killing assault on the consulate, although she cautioned that she was offering preliminary assessments.
That’s how we would summarize What Susan Rice Said. All that shit you hear on TV was selected by Republican elements to create a sense of scandal.
Absent liberal push-back, the GOP’s story took firm hold. As recently as Wednesday night, you saw that disgraceful cherry-pick by Chuck Todd as Brian Williams looked on. For an example of outright journalistic malpractice in service to a Standard Press Corps Account, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/15/12.
Absent liberal push-back, the GOP’s story took firm control. On the One True Channel, the children played, as they frequently do.
In fairness to MSNBC: In fairness to MSNBC, other liberal news orgs ignored the group assault on Rice too. And not only that:
Bill Wolff may have decided that the assault on Rice wasn’t sufficiently entertaining! When David Frum talks about “the conservative entertainment complex,” we liberals need to understand this:
Increasingly, we have a burgeoning entertainment complex too!