Monday, October 23, 2006

CNN, Big Brother, and Truth

In at least one respect, the incident reported in my previous posting has unfolded like something straight out of George Orwell’s 1984. Orwell describes life in a dictatorship where “truth” is determined by the Party leadership, and actual news stories get endlessly rewritten in order to show Big Brother and the Party were in the first place, always correct. Now for a twist on 1984: imagine a world where critical news stories need never be completely rewritten, because news departments pre-empt anticipated government denials, rephrasing any harsh criticism of the government in softer terms.

In the previous posting, I questioned whether CNN had toned-down criticisms by a Bush administration official in its report. I contrasted CNN’s account with an account by the BBC. Answering some questions and raising new ones comes a second CNN article: State Department official: I misspoke on Iraq policy First, note that CNN has not altered its original phrasing of the official’s criticisms:
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A senior State Department diplomat apologized Sunday for having told the Arab satellite network Al-Jazeera on Saturday that there is a strong possibility history will show the United States displayed "arrogance" and "stupidity" in its handling of the Iraq war.
there is a strong possibility history will show… But that’s not what the official apologizes for having said, as the very next paragraph shows:
"Upon reading the transcript of my appearance on Al-Jazeera, I realized that I seriously misspoke by using the phrase 'there has been arrogance and stupidity' by the U.S. in Iraq," Alberto Fernandez said in an e-mail sent to reporters by the State Department and attributed to him.
'there has been arrogance and stupidity' The official has quoted himself, and the quote attests to the blatant inaccuracy of the first paragraph of this CNN report. Further down the article, we see that CNN has misreported the wording of CNN’s own translation:
His apology Sunday differed from a defense of his comments that he made to CNN during an interview Saturday night.

"History will decide what role the United States played," he told Al-Jazeera in Arabic, based on CNN translations. "And God willing, we tried to do our best in Iraq.

"But I think there is a big possibility (inaudible) for extreme criticism and because undoubtedly there was arrogance and stupidity from the United States in Iraq."
…because undoubtedly there was arrogance and stupidity from the United States in Iraq. This also happens be a near perfect match with the BBC account. Here we have concrete evidence (provided by CNN itself) that CNN's distortion of the official's actual remark did not stem from a translation issue. CNN reconstructed the official’s harsh language into phrasing that made the official sound far less critical of the administration than he actually was. Of course, we have no proof that CNN softened the tone of the official’s criticisms intentionally.

As to the content of the story: It’s evident that Bush Administration higher-ups pressured this official to renounce what he actually said and meant. The lesson is clear: if you work for the US government you must understand that truth is not based on fact, experience, or perception – that’s not how officials shall arrive at the truth. Truth is something that can only be determined and shaped by the Bush administration itself. Hence the absurdity of this second news story, wherein the official is shown disavowing his own words -- as if they had never been spoken.

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