NBC News
(May 2008)

It's pretty simple, really. The President of the United States is asked a question by an NBC reporter in a videotaped interview. He answers it. When the answer is broadcast, his answer has been edited, omitting sentences in the middle of his response. The White House objects.

NBC's president, Steve Capus, answers: the version "accurately" reflected the interview.

Baloney. The version may accurately reflect what NBC's reporter genuinely believes the President meant to say. It may even accurately reflect what some reasonable listeners might take his meaning to be. But it did not accurately reflect the interview, because it misrepresented the interview without informing the viewing audience that the President's reply was not what the same as what they were hearing. It was, therefore, a lie to imply otherwise. That makes Capus's answer a lie as well.

The episode began with President Bush's controversial speech in Israel. Bush mentioned the president of Iran and said: "Some seem to believe that we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along."

This was taken by many to be a side-swipe at Barack Obama, who has said that if elected President he would meet with the leaders of Iran without pre-conditions. The White House denied it. NBC Reporter Richard Engel asked Bush if he had intended an attack on Obama. His response was, "You know, my policies haven't changed, but evidently the political calendar has. People need to read the speech. You didn't get it exactly right, either. What I said was that we need to take the words of people seriously. And when, you know, a leader of Iran says that they want to destroy Israel, you've got to take those words seriously." The version that was shown on the air left out the middle, leaving the statement to read, "You know, my policies haven't changed, but evidently the political calendar has. And when, you know, a leader of Iran says that they want to destroy Israel, you've got to take those words seriously."

Ethics foul. The clip left the impression that Bush said something other than what he actually did; by definition, it could not "accurately" reflect his meaning, whatever it may have been. This is not, to state the obvious, the most articulate White House occupant in the nation's history. President Bush often handles the English language like it's a live grenade. He needs all the words and sentences in his statements to be heard by anyone daring enough to try to decipher them. Making the TV audience think half the words aren't there is like asking them to solve a crossword puzzle with only half the clues.

In Capus's letter in response to White House complaints, he makes one disingenuous argument and, in the alternative, an irrelevant one. "Editing is a part of journalism," Capus writes. "We take the collective body of information surrounding a story, distill it and produce a report." Editing a President's response to a question so as to change its content is not "part of journalism," however….at least not part of fair and ethical journalism. In another part of the latter, Capus takes a different approach. "In fact, the entire interview was posted Sunday on our website, MSNBC.com," he says, "thus allowing everyone to draw their own conclusions about it, the subject matter and our editing." Bush counsel Ed Gillespie accurately explained what was wrong with that argument, saying, "It's simply absurd for people to have to log onto the Internet and stream video to get accurate information from NBC News."

Capus is right in one respect. The video of the full interview response makes it clear that NBC misrepresented what the president said, because it distorted the content of his comment. It was a lie that the network denies is a lie, even though its own website shows it is lying when it says it didn't lie.

And that's how a network news division becomes a "Liar of the Month"!

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