THE RELIABLE ABSENCE OF BASIC SKILLS: Dead German scientists and the AP!

MONDAY, JULY 17, 2017

Part 1—The AP's basic skills:
Last Thursday morning, the New York Times dropped a dime on those misfiring German scientists of the late 18th century.

The topic even made page A3, home of Noteworthy Facts:
Of Interest


In the late 1700s, German scientists blamed the occurrence of arson on the traumas of menstruation,
a theory that had to be discarded when it was determined that most arsonists were men.
Oof. That fact was drawn from a book review by Jennifer Senior, whose work for the Times has been superb. The noteworthy fact on page A3 made us recall our ruminations on Wittgenstein and Kant.

Last Monday, at the start of our "basic skills" series, we briefly considered Professor Horwich's theory—his theory that the academy turned away from Wittgenstein because Wittgenstein said that previous philosophy should pretty much land on the junk heap of history.

It might be hard to keep teaching your standard Kant course if you accept the idea that traditional philosophy was built upon a foundation of conceptual confusion. And so, alas:

Though Wittgenstein's later work provides an array of highly useful analytical skills, it had to be thrown away! Better him than the familiar, traditional courses in the course catalog!

Is that why Wittgenstein lost favor within the academy? We can't answer that question, though we'd long considered that possibility by the time we read Horwich's essay.

That said, we couldn't help chuckling at the failed attempt of those German scientists to explain the cause of arson. Their embarrassing error made us think of immortal Kant.

In this, our modern misfiring world, we're supposed to roll our eyes at the embarrassing dumbness of European scientists, physicians and such from that embarrassing era. But we're also asked to continue thinking that figures like the immortal Kant (17424-1804) were firing brilliantly on all cylinders—that their immortal analyses and critiques were pretty much right on course!

The planet is losing its biological diversity with each passing year. With the refusal of our logicians to perform their classic guardian role, the planet is also losing its storehouse of analytical skills, or at least is failing to develop the new, advanced skills we need.

We'll return to these musings another day, and to Horwich's essay. For today, let's think about the skill level recently put on display by the Associated Press, the Kant of American news orgs.

Late in April, the AP released this transcript of Julie Pace's interview with President Donald J. Trump. The interview had been granted to mark the president's masterful first hundred days.

As such, the transcript qualifies as a significant journalistic document. But how odd:

The body of the historically significant transcript starts as shown below. Presumably, the "AP" designation marks the questions and statements made by Pace, to whom the interview is attributed:
AP: I do want to talk to you about the 100 days.

TRUMP: Good.

AP: I want to ask a few questions on some topics that are happening toward the end of the interview.

TRUMP: Did you see Aya (Hijazi, an Egyptian-American charity worker who had been detained in the country for nearly three years) ...

AP: Can you tell me a little bit about how that came about?

TRUMP: No, just—you know, I asked the government to let her out. ...

TRUMP: You know Obama worked on it for three years, got zippo, zero.

AP: How did you hear about this story?

TRUMP: Many people, human rights people, are talking about it. It’s an incredible thing, especially when you meet her. You realize—I mean, she was in a rough place.

AP: Did you have to strike a deal with (Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah) el-Sissi over this?

TRUMP: No. No deal. He was here. He—I said, “I really would appreciate it if you would look into this and let her out.” And as you know, she went through a trial. And anyway, she was let go. And not only she, it was a total of eight people. ...
After that, a break in the transcript occurs. That text seems to represent the first, self-contained chunk of the interview—and it makes little apparent sense.

"I do want to talk to you about the 100 days," Pace says at the start of this exchange. "I want to ask a few questions on some topics that are happening toward the end of the interview," she quickly adds.

That said, how strange! At no point does the transcript explain what "interview" Pace was citing.

To what "interview" does she refer? We have no idea.

In his response, Trump seems to think that Pace is referring to an event, or set of events, involving an Egyptian-American charity worker whose name seems to be Aya Hijazi. Within the transcript, the reader is given no idea why Trump would have thought that.

What explains this first chunk of this significant transcript? To what "interview" is Pace referring in her initial statement?

She doesn't seem to be referring to some other part of her own interview with Trunp. We find no other place in the AP's transcript where Hizari's name or situation was ever discussed.

Peculiarly, this unexplained chunk of dialogue appears at the very start of this lengthy, significant transcript. Presumably, anyone who peruses the transcript will be instantly puzzled by this initial chunk. But three months after the interview transcript was posted by the AP, there the reference sits, still unexplained. Our big news orgs ted to be like this.

Unless you've worked with the careless transcripts our major news orgs routinely produce, it might be hard to imagine why the AP would publish such a peculiar document. That said, further puzzlement might arise from the punctuation displayed in that brief first interview segment.

We refer to the ellipses which occur at three different places, and to the parentheses which appear in this comment by Trump:
TRUMP: Did you see Aya (Hijazi, an Egyptian-American charity worker who had been detained in the country for nearly three years) ...
As you can see from what we've posted, parentheses also appear in a later comment by Pace.

This may seem like a minor point, but this is a major interview. Did Trump speak the words which appear inside those parentheses? Or were those words inserted as a point of explanation by the AP itself?

We ask because, in standard practice, an inserted statement would probably appear inside brackets. In that case, Trump's statement would look like this:
TRUMP: Did you see Aya [Hijazi, an Egyptian-American charity worker who had been detained in the country for nearly three years] ...
We'll guess that the AP added the parenthetical material. But the transcript has barely started, and already we're guessing about who spoke or wrote a major phrase in a discussion of a topic whose very existence is puzzling.

Meanwhile, alas again! By normal standards, another point of confusion seems to lurk in that interview chunk. We refer to the use of ellipses (dot dot dots} at three separate points.

In standard notation, ellipses are typically inserted to indicate that a deletion of some kind has occurred. If a writer transcribes a statement but omits some part of the statement, those three little dots let the reader know that a deletion occurred.

Typically, that would be standard practice, but our major news orgs tend to be amazingly careless, in various ways, when they prepare their transcripts. In this instance, the AP has offered a brief explainer about its use of those ellipses.

Here's what the AP's explainer says. This text appears at the very start of the AP document, before the body of the transcript appears:
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS (4/23/17): A transcript of an Oval Office interview Friday with President Donald Trump by AP White House Correspondent Julie Pace. Where the audio recording of the interview is unclear, ellipses or a notation that the recording was unintelligible are used.
Apparently, the transcript was prepared from an audio recording. According to that brief explainer, ellipses were (sometimes) used when parts of the recording were unclear.

Somewhat remarkably, this seems to mean that, at three separate points in that one short exchange, the audio recording was so unclear that verbiage spoken by Trump couldn't be included. One starts to wonder about the way this interview was recorded.

Beyond that, an additional point is left unexplained. At some points, ellipses will be used to indicate that verbiage was omitted because the audio was unclear. At other points, we're told that the term "unintelligible" will be inserted into the transcript, to indicate the same thing.

Why did the AP mark this problem in two different ways? No explanation appears. Our news orgs tend to be like this.

We run through these points for a reason. Two weeks after this transcript appeared, Masha Gessen, an important journalist, delivered an important lecture at the PEN World Voices Festival in New York City.

In a substantial chunk of her lecture, Gessen worked directly from this AP transcript. She did so very poorly.

In theory, this AP transcript is an important journalistic document. In its execution, it was a bit of a puzzling mess.

And then, the inevitable occurred, bringing in the eternal note of sadness:

When Gessen delivered her lecture, she completely misinterpreted one significant element of the AP transcript. For this reason, it seems fairly clear that Gessen hadn't performed basic due diligence before making use of this document.

It also seems clear that Gessen has little experience working with the amateurish, unreliable transcripts our biggest news orgs routinely produce. It seems to us that Gessen has probably never wrestled with these problematic documents before, trying to determine what was actually said.

Can we talk? Gessen drew a great deal of laughter and applause as she read from the AP transcript during her lecture. As she did, our analysts cringed and wailed.

They were watching a somewhat embarrassing liberal audience laughing and cheering as a badly unprepared major journalist made extremely basic, embarrassing errors as she worked from a somewhat bungled transcript.

The analysts moaned and tore at their hair. "Buck up! What else is new?" we thoughtfully declared.

Long ago, our guardians within the academy walked off their posts. In his essay, Professor Horwich pokes and prods at one possible part of that group's refusal to serve.

This happened within our philosophy departments. But it has also happened at an array of major news orgs, not excluding the Associated Press.

Julie Pace is a thoroughly competent, thoroughly sensible journalist. The transcript purporting to record her interview with Trump is a bit of a puzzling mess.

Gessen is one of our most highly regarded journalists. When she worked from the AP transcript, she made inexcusable errors. And good God, holy smokes, dear lord!

Good God! That liberal crowd!

Tomorrow: Pretending to quote what was said

One other point from that short first chunk: The short first chunk of that AP transcript is riddled with points of confusion.

We don't know what "interview" Pace is referring to in that chunk. Just for the record, we also can't explain this:
TRUMP: No, just—you know, I asked the government to let her out. ...

TRUMP: You know Obama worked on it for three years, got zippo, zero.
Why does Trump seem to speak two consecutive times, without an interjection from Pace?

We can't exactly answer that question. We can tell you this:

When our big news orgs create transcripts, basic transcription skills are commonly missing in action. Our big news orgs are slipshod, careless, deeply unskilled. Again and again and again and again, they don't much seem to care.


  1. Presumably the AP has been laying off copy editors.

  2. Where commitment to democracy is weak, commitment to facts and to evidence will be weak. A plutocracy doesn’t require them. Welcome to the USA!

  3. Somerby asks why Trump speaks two sentences without any intervening interjection by Pace. That's how he talks. He doesn't respond to questions by others. He follows his own train of thought and that is far from direct because his chain of thoughts jump from topic to topic without obvious connection. His interviews are stream of consciousness and interviewers try to follow and catch up. Trump does not answer what is asked. He says what he wants, when he wants, interrupting interviewers and himself.

    The break most likely indicates a pause. He trails off in his preceding sentences, suggesting he becomes lost in his own thought process (such as it is) and then he makes an unasked for remark about Obama.

    Somerby has little sympathy for the interviewer of someone who behaves like this. Trump is autistic, in the sense that he does not acknowledge or respond to another person while having a conversation with them. He stops speaking intelligibly because he isn't talking to anyone else anyway. Trump is the problem, not the transcriber, who has no one he or she can go to to confirm what was actually said.

    It would not surprise me if the AP did not want to embarrass Trump or his staff by trying to firm up these interview transcripts.

    When Somerby first complained about this, I didn't buy his argument. Now, he assumes he was correct and blames Gessen for not agreeing with his complaint. All while never restating (for readers who weren't here before) what his initial complaint was about. That doesn't make Somerby the master of clarity himself.

    Trump communication is disordered. What is Somerby's excuse? It shouldn't take a philosopher to sort this stuff out. But we are all ignoring the problem because we are pretending that Trump is normal, mentally competent, and fit to be President. By pretending these transcripts mean anything, we are admiring the Emperor's new clothes again.

  4. This is it. I shant ever be visiting this blog again.

  5. Wittgenstein says something snarky about previous philosophers and Somerby takes it seriously and thinks it means all previous philosophy must be abandoned. Philosophers disagree with each other and criticize each other. That's what they do. It doesn't mean all logic and critical thinking are dead. This is just plain silly.

  6. "Intellectuals are in a position to expose the lies of governments, to analyze actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions. In the Western world, at least, they have the power that comes from political liberty, from access to information and freedom of expression. For a privileged minority, Western democracy provides the leisure, the facilities and the training to seek the truth lying hidden behind the veil of distortion and misrepresentation, ideology and class interest, through which the events of current history are presented to us."

  7. "In his response, Trump seems to think that Pace is referring to an event, or set of events, involving an Egyptian-American charity worker whose name seems to be Aya Hijazi."

    "She doesn't seem to be referring to some other part of her own interview with Trunp."

    "This may seem like a minor point..."

    "For this reason, it seems fairly clear that Gessen hadn't performed basic due diligence before making use of this document.

    It also seems clear that Gessen has little experience working with the amateurish, unreliable transcripts our biggest news orgs routinely produce. It seems to us that Gessen has probably never wrestled with these problematic documents before..."

    Can we talk? Bob Somerby seems to be full of gorilla dust today.

    Bob has no idea what Trump was thinking. The woman's name is Aya Hijazi. Pace is referring to her own interview.

    What the term "basic due diligence" means is as clear as mud. Bob has no idea if Gessen has ever worked with AP transcripts.

    [It is a minor point.)

  8. It seems fairly straightforward to me. Pace says, perhaps clumsily, "before THIS interview is over, I want to ask you about some current events."

    Then Trump responds with, basically, before I forget about it, let me brag about this thing I did recently. Trump does not HAVE to guess what the interviewer is thinking, he can set his own agenda, advance his own topics and talking points. (I feel like if I said this in my college dorm, somebody would respond with 'duh')

    Those seem fairly normal to me. Yes, he wants to blow his own horn, who doesn't? Especially when he is having megatons of excrement thrown at him on an hourly basis.

    Gessen was doing what the audience wanted her to do, throw some presumably well aimed globs of excrement at the Drumpfster. "Did you hear the one about?....Trump is such a fascist pig that when he says even just three sentences even NUMB3RS lose their meaning."

    And the audience roars "ha, ha, ha, yes we DO hate Trump. He's pure evil, and we're so good, we're practically Campbell's soup."

    Not, mind you, that I am saying that there are NO reasons to hate Trump, but the actions here seem to be from people who are just looking for a reason, any reason, to glob some spit at the guy, and if they cannot find one, they will just make one up.

    1. This would make sense if it weren't true that people who talk like Trump have cognitive deficits like Alzheimers and dementia. His speech isn't normal. Gessen attributes it to deliberate manipulation. I think he is losing coherence due to some mental problem maybe related to age or poor health.

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  10. Somerby denounces Gessen's "inexcusable errors", but never says or even links to what they were.

    We are merely supposed to take it on our blind faith in Somerby's judgment that the errors (1) were on Gessen's part and (2) were indeed as bad as all that.

    If after all this time watching an increasingly unbalanced rant we might possibly be hesitant to extend quite that much trust, and ask to see more corroborative details, well, sorry, Somerby doesn't reply to any comments here.

    Just as he never bothers to prune away blatant spam.

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