Trump, Post swap mistakes: The first fifteen minutes of yesterday's daily briefing was deeply painful to watch.
It started with a specific claim lodged by President Trump. According to Trump, Dr. Robert Redfield, head of the CDC, had been "totally misquoted" by the Washington Post in this Tuesday news report.
As Trump interrupted various parties and spoke for everyone else, Redfield was marched onto the stage to explain what he'd actually said. At one point, he specifically said that he hadn't been misquoted by the Post.
As Redfield stumbled a bit under further questioning, Trump motioned Dr. Birx to the stage to speak in Redfield's place. While there, she delivered the latest of her air-filled, distracting orations. Trump's invitation to Birx had followed this awkward question for Redfield:
REPORTER (4/22/20): Why did you retweet the article if it was inaccurate, Doctor? Why did you retweet it?Dr. Redfield had indeed retweeted the article in question. Instead of letting Redfield answer, Trump scolded the reporter for asking. He then called Birx to the stage, sitting Redfield down.
TRUMP: You weren’t called.
A nation whose discourse works this way is a nation destined to fail. Anthropologists have been telling us this for the past several years.
This opening fifteen minute scrum devolved into a more general trashing of the press by an irate commander-in-chief. The whole thing ended with a self-pitying, self-glorifying monologue by the commander.
Warning! Misstatements included:
TRUMP: You know, at one time, all [the press] talked about was ventilators, because you didn't think it was possible for me to solve that problem. And I solved it and nobody can believe it. I just spoke to world leaders today who desperately need ventilators. They said, "The job you've done"—and we're sending 500 to Mexico, then another 500 to France. We're sending some to Spain. We're sending some to Italy. They're being made by the thousands.This led to one of the excruciating soliloquies which have become the trademark of Vice President Pence, delivered in the Reagan persona he's been practicing in front of mirrors since he was five years old. During the later Q-and-A, reporters didn't direct a single question to Redfield.
And world leaders—I spoke to Prime Minister— I mean, I went through a lot of different calls today, I won't even tell you, I can give you a list if you want. But I went through a lot of calls to a lot of leaders. Spoke with Pakistan. They would like to have some ventilators. We're going to get them some ventilators. But they all said to me one thing: "It was incredible that you solved the ventilator problem," because that was a big problem.
The testing problem, we've done more than any other nation in the world. Go a step further. If you added up the testing of every nation in the world, put them together, we've done substantially more than that. You people aren't satisfied.
So let's say we had 350 million people in the United States, all right? Let's say. And if we gave every one of those people a test 10 times, so we give 350 [million] people a test 10 times, the fake news media would say, "Where's the 11th time? He didn't do his job. Trump didn't do his job." Because you have a lot of bad reporting out there, it's very sad. And it's so bad—
JONATHAN KARL: That's just not true! That's not true.
TRUMP: You're one of the leaders of the bad reporting.
KARL: No, that's not true.
TRUMP: Let's get onto another subject. I wanted that to be cleared up. If you want, we can get onto it later, but I want the vice president to speak...
The commander's self-pity knows no bounds. His delusions about his own manifest greatness seem to be clinical. It's a dangerous state of affairs.
In this case, Trump's claim about what the press would say if he tested everyone ten separate times triggered a very unusual moment. As Trump made his wild prediction, a leading journalist hotly declared that his statement was "just not true."
Our press corps displays an endless capacity to slumber through the commander's endless daily misstatements. Yesterday, in a very rare moment, Jonathan Karl seemed to be genuinely offended by what Trump had said—offended on behalf of the truth.
At any rate, Trump's behavior during the fifteen minutes provided a master class is public dysfunction. He bullied and made wild misstatements. He tried to speak for everyone else. He engaged in mammoth, inaccurate acts of self-praise. He engaged in ludicrous acts of self-pity.
In fairness, though, another fact must be stated today. In the news report under review, the Washington Post actually did misrepresent—embellish—what Redfield apparently told them.
(No tape of the interview has been made public.)
There is no sign that Redfield was actually misquoted by the Post. But, quite plainly, the Washington Post misparaphrased what Redfield had said.
In what ways did the Post misparaphrase Redfield—embellish what he actually said? They did so right in their opening paragraph, and in their fiery headline.
This is how Lena Sun's report began, current headline included:
SUN (4/22/20): CDC director warns second wave of coronavirus is likely to be even more devastatingIn paragraph 2, you see the direct quotation which Redfield said was accurate. This is what, by all accounts, Redfield actually said:
Even as states move ahead with plans to reopen their economies, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned Tuesday that a second wave of the novel coronavirus will be far more dire because it is likely to coincide with the start of flu season.
“There’s a possibility that the assault of the virus on our nation next winter will actually be even more difficult than the one we just went through,” CDC Director Robert Redfield said in an interview with The Washington Post. “And when I’ve said this to others, they kind of put their head back, they don’t understand what I mean.”
"There’s a possibility that the assault of the virus on our nation next winter will actually be even more difficult than the one we just went through."In that direct quotation, Redfield refers to a possibility that the second wave of the virus will be "more difficult" than the current first wave. But right there in her opening paragraph, Sun embellished that statement in two separate ways.
In her opening paragraph, Sun has Redfield saying that the second wave will be more difficult. In that embellshment, Sun has moved from the statement of a possibility to a flat prediction.
Also this! According to Sun's paraphrase, the second wave won't simply be "more difficult." In Sun's inaccurate paraphrase, it will be "far more dire."
Sun's paraphrase embellishes Redfield's quoted statement in two separate ways. It transforms a statement of mere possibility into a flat prediction. It turns the claim that the second wave may be "more difficult" into the statement that it will be "far more dire."
The headline took Sun's paraphrase and embellished it a bit further. In the headline, a second wave which may be "more difficult" has now become "more devastating." Meanwhile, the headline presents this as "a likelihood," not as a "possibility."
That is plainly underskilled journalism; it's underskilled all the way down. By all accounts, Sun accurately quoted Redfield in paragraph 2—but she misparaphrased what he said right there in paragraph 1!
Redfield wasn't misquoted by the Post, but he was misparaphrased. Amazingly, Trump captured the essence of this distinction as part of his opening rant—an opening rant which was clogged with other misstatements.
As he ranted and misstated, Trump actually made a reasonable distinction. One minute into yesterday's session, this is how his complaint began:
TRUMP: I do want to mention a man who’s done a very good job for us. Dr. Robert Redfield was totally misquoted in the media on a statement about the fall season and the virus, totally misquoted. I spoke to him and he said it was ridiculous.As far as anyone can say, Redfield wasn't "totally misquoted." Indeed, in a narrow, technical sense, there is no sign that he was misquoted at all.
He was talking about the flu and corona coming together at the same time and corona could be just some little flare-ups that we’ll take care of. We’re going to knock it out. We’ll knock it out fast.
But that’s what he was referring to, coming together at the same time. And I think rather than waiting, I’d ask Dr. Redfield to come up and say a couple of words just to straighten that out, because he didn’t say it was a big explosion.
The headline in The Washington Post was totally inaccurate. The statement wasn’t bad in the Post, but the headline was ridiculous, which is, as I say, that’s fake news and CNN is fake news like crazy, and they had just totally the wrong story, which they knew.
Beyond that, he never spoke about "some little flare-up." Also, the Post never quoted him saying that the second wave would be "a big explosion." These are the sorts of embellishments which litter Trump's daily rants.
As usual, Trump's complaint, right from the start, featured his characteristic misstatements. But he managed to get one basic point right:
In Trump's assessment, the quoted statement wasn't wrong in the body of the Post's report. The problem came with the headline.
In fact, the problem began in paragraph 1, but Trump was making a reasonable distinction. Inevitably, fifteen minutes of loudmouth nonsense followed, as now happens every evening as the nation's cable channels spend hours airing the prime-time rantings of a deeply disordered man.
That said, we must also say this:
Disordered though President Trump may be, the Washington Post actually did mischaracterize what Redfield was quoted saying. His quoted statement was embellished in two different ways—and the embellishments appeared in the headline, where the most eyes would see them.
Long ago and far away, we frequently spoke about the logic of paraphrase. "The power to paraphrase is the power to spin," we said again and again.
At the time, we were speaking about Campaign 2000, a White House election which plainly turned on twenty months of fanciful paraphrase—relentless embellishments engineered and super-spread by the upper-end mainstream press.
Twenty years later, our nation's upper-end journalists still haven't mastered this basic skill. Nor have they developed the willingness to admit to such mistakes when they occur.
Last evening, Sun appeared on CNN; she indicated that her report had been beyond reproach. Later, the Post's Ashley Parker appeared with Brian Williams, where she and a panel of guild members—including the New York Times' Peter Baker—joined Williams in pretending that there had been nothing wrong with the Post's report.
We were disappointed to see Parker do that. We've come to admire her cogency over the past few years as we've watched her many appearances on MSNBC panel shows.
Last night, Parker fell in line behind her newspaper, and behind the guild. This morning, in a front-page report, she fails to acknowledge the fact that Sun's report did in fact mischaracterize what Redfield was quoted saying.
Readers, a person can be misparaphrased even as he's being accurately quoted! Beyond that, a misparaphrase can mislead and misinform a reader just as a misquotation can.
In recent months, we've noted the fact that our great logicians would never stoop to the level of exploring the logic of sensible paraphrase as part of "daily logic." With yesterday's melee, we all see, for the ten millionth time, where we the people are left by this endless refusal to serve.
Yesterday's first fifteen minutes was an embarrassing mess. Your lizard brain is going to urge you to assume that only Trump could possibly have been wrong in the matter at issue.
As always, the commander was wildly, crazily wrong in a wide array of ways. But you should consider telling your lizard that the Post had misperformed too.
Trump screamed and yelled as he always does. He frequently misstated.
He donned his Mussolini mask. He bullied, and he spoke for others. He called on Birx for one of her patented distractions.
But just as a matter of fact, the Washington Post did in fact misparaphrase what Dr. Redfield said. Even at the highest end, our journalists' skills are amazingly limited, and as we've seen for twenty-two years, they don't acknowledge mistakes.
(Given the limited state of their skills, they may not even realize that a mistake had been made.)
The basic skills of our upper-end journalists are amazingly limited. This afternoon, we'll discuss the way two high-end journalists recently crashed and burned as they tried to question Trump about his past crazy statements.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep. Our upper-end journalists lack basic skills.
Tomorrow, we'll tell you what should be done. Yesterday, the president ranted and raved at length once again as an elite looked on.
This afternoon: How to bungle an obvious question
Tomorrow: What's to be done?