Part 3—Crowd bursts into applause: As major political figures go, Donald J. Trump tilts rather strongly toward inarticulate.
As she delivered the Arthur Miller Lecture to the PEN World Voices Festival, Masha Gessen took note of this fact. For ourselves, we'd prefer a more nuanced analysis. But the gist of this sketch was correct:
GESSEN (5/7/17): [Donald J. Trump] has a talent for using words in ways that make them mean nothing. Everyone is "great" and everything is "tremendous." Any word can be given or taken away. NATO can be obsolete and then no longer obsolete, which challenges not only our shared understanding of the word “obsolete” but also our shared experience of linear time.To watch the tape of Gessen's lecture, you can just click here.
And then there is Trump’s ability to take words and throw them into a pile that means nothing.
Trump tends strongly toward inarticulate in his extemporaneous speech. According to Gessen, her learned audience would now be "subjected to" an example.
"I'm actually going to subject you to an excerpt from an interview that he did with AP for the hundred days," she said. "It was really hard to choose because the whole interview's like this."
The Associated Press had published a transcript of its interview with Trump on April 23. Two weeks later, Gessen warned the crowd that they would be subjected to an excerpt. Indeed, she was going to read the painful excerpt aloud!
At this point, you need to see how the excerpt looks in the AP's official transcript. Below, you see the full interview chunk from which Gessen took her excerpt.
In the main, Donald J. Trump is speaking here about his award-winning Tomahawk strike. This is the full interview chunk from which Gessen took her excerpt:
AP: Can I ask you, over your first 100 days—you’re not quite there yet—how do you feel like the office has changed you?Trump was asked how the office has changed him. We'd be inclined to call his answer fatuous but basically harmless.
TRUMP: Well the one thing I would say—and I say this to people—I never realized how big it was. Everything’s so (unintelligible) like, you know the orders are so massive. I was talking to—
AP: You mean the responsibility of it, or do you mean—
TRUMP: Number One, there’s great responsibility. When it came time to, as an example, send out the 59 missiles, the Tomahawks in Syria. I’m saying to myself, “You know, this is more than just like, 79 (sic) missiles. This is death that’s involved,” because people could have been killed. This is risk that’s involved, because if the missile goes off and goes in a city or goes in a civilian area—you know, the boats were hundreds of miles away—and if this missile goes off and lands in the middle of a town or a hamlet .... every decision is much harder than you’d normally make. (unintelligible) ... This is involving death and life and so many things. ... So it’s far more responsibility. (unintelligible) ....The financial cost of everything is so massive, every agency. This is thousands of times bigger, the United States, than the biggest company in the world. The second-largest company in the world is the Defense Department. The third-largest company in the world is Social Security. The fourth-largest—you know, you go down the list.
TRUMP. It’s massive. And every agency is, like, bigger than any company. So you know, I really just see the bigness of it all, but also the responsibility. And the human responsibility. You know, the human life that’s involved in some of the decisions.
The AP had inserted one "(sic)" when Trump seemed to change a number. For ourselves, we'd prefer to see that term appear in brackets.
In that segment, Trump rambled a bit about the size of the job. Already, though, you've noticed something about that AP transcript. Just in that one short interview chunk, the term "unintelligible" has been inserted three times.
Additionally, ellipses (dot dot dots) have been used four times. But hallelujah! At the very start of its document, before the actual transcript begins, the AP has already explained what those insertions mean:
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.The ellipses, and the "unintelligible" notations, were meant to indicate places where the audio was unclear.
The AP explained this point right at the start of its document. Apparently, Gessen hadn't read it. A fair observer must also say that Gessen seems to have little experience reviewing published transcripts by news orgs, in which such insertions are extremely common, although they're rarely explained.
Citizens, let's talk! It's completely common, in such transcripts, to encounter the insertion of terms like UNINTELLIGIBLE or INAUDIBLE.
Another term, CROSSTALK, will often appear in such transcripts, generally to indicate that six or seven cable news stars were all explaining something at once. Along with all the "unintelligibles" and all the ellipses, this term appears twice in the AP transcript, which is at least slightly odd, since only two people were involved in the AP's discussion.
Whatever! Everyone knows that terms like UNINTELLIGIBLE are common in press corps transcripts. You'd almost think that major journalists would know what such phrases mean.
In this instance, the AP took the trouble of spelling it out, but Gessen apparently hadn't read the AP's explanation. And so it came to pass! As Gessen subjected her audience to the painful excerpt from Trump, she played the term "unintelligible" for laughs, then pondered its ultimate meaning.
As she subjected the crowd to the excerpt, this is what Gessen said. We'll italicize the portions where she is supposedly reading Trump. Her worst moment comes at the end:
GESSEN: I'm actually going to subject you to an excerpt from an interview that he did with AP for the hundred days, It was really hard to choose because actually the entire interview's like this.Oof! Everybody makes mistakes—and Gessen, who has walked the walk as a journalist, has earned, and richly deserves, the public's full respect.
So here is Trump:
Number One, there’s great responsibility. When it came time to, as an example, send out the 59 missiles, the Tomahawks in Syria.
I’m saying to myself, “You know, this is more than just like 79 missiles. This is death that’s involved,” because people could have been killed. This is risk that’s involved, because if the missile goes off and goes in a city or goes in a civilian area—you know, the boats were hundreds of miles away—and if this missile goes off and lands in the middle of a town or a hamlet every decision is much harder than you’d normally make.
This is involving death and life and so many things. So it’s far more responsibility.
The financial cost of everything is so massive, every agency.
This is thousands of times bigger, the United States, than the biggest company in the world.
Now I made a partial list of words that lose their meaning in this passage. Responsibility; the number 59; the number 79;
Death; people; risk; city; civilian; hamlet, decision; hard; normal; life; the United States.
And even the word "unintelligible," inserted by the journalist, means nothing, because how can something be unintelligible when uttered face to face in an interview?
And the role of the journalist is also rendered meaningless in the most basic way...
But that is a horrible offering. Gessen gets her first laugh by reading the world "period," implying that Trump's sentence structure made no sense at that point.
It didn't occur to her that the transcript might be poorly punctuated at that point. Such errors are tremendously common when news orgs publish transcripts of extemporaneous speech. We'll assume Gessen doesn't know that.
We'd call that a cheap first laugh. Assuming it was sought in good faith, it suggests a surprising lack of familiarity, on Gessen's part, with typical news org transcripts.
Her reading of "period" produced a cheap first laugh. But good God! The analysts began to writhe and scream when Gessen scored bigly with this:
GESSEN: And even the word "unintelligible," inserted by the journalist, means nothing, because how can something be unintelligible when uttered face to face in an interview?Ow ow ow ow ow ow ow! The analysts were writhing in psychic pain. But the audience, comprised of smart brilliant writers, burst into laughter at this point, then offered dim-witted applause.
Tomorrow, we're going to subject you to what Gessen said next. Today, in closing, let's settle for this:
Nothing will turn on the fact that Gessen produced this large misrepresentation, which we assume was an honest mistake.
(Over in the tents of The Others, it will be scored as a "lie." In doing so, The Others will, of course, be behaving just like Us.)
Nothing will turn on the fact that Gessen made this blatant mistake. Beyond that, the path of history isn't going to change because that smart brilliant erudite wise learned audience showed its appreciation with a round of dim-witted applause.
Still and all, our analysts said, after calming down, that this is the sort of thing which happens all the time Over Here within the tents of our own smart learned tribe. Sometimes, if it weren't for the lack of understanding and skill, there would be no such critters at all.
Masha Gessen is smart and sincere, and she's walked the walk. When the times get sufficiently tribal, this is the kind of performance we get from those who are truly our best!
Tomorrow: Using our words; we return to third grade basic skills