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.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?
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.
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.Let’s stop right there. One obvious part of Rice’s account would have to be the following:
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...
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?Was this al Qaeda? We’ll have to find out, Rice said, although she plainly implied that it might have been al Qaeda.
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 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?