Why “NewsHour” omission of Obama’s Lincoln mistake looked like a liberal media conspiracy

When PBS’s “NewsHour” posted a transcript of President Barack Obama’s jobs speech last week, the show was accused of all manner of journalistic transgressions. Instapundit accused “NewsHour” of simple laziness. The Blaze’s Meredith Jessup went with the time-honored “liberal media bias” charge. And then there was Timothy Birdnow at American Thinker, who alleged that the show “purposely altered a transcript containing a major gaffe by the President.” — a charge Fox Nation was all too happy to repeat. In reality, however, the news show simply posted the text as provided by the White House ahead of time.

The prepared remarks did not include Obama’s off-script (and incorrect) assertion that President Lincoln was, “Founder of the Republican Party.” Rather than being a deliberate attempt by “NewsHour” to improve Mr. Obama’s public image, however, the incorrect transcript was a slip-up that occurred when “NewsHour” made the decision to post the remarks as they were prepared, and then delayed updating the text to reflect the actual remarks as Mr. Obama delivered them.

Anne Bell, public relations manager for PBS “NewsHour,” explained how an innocent mistake quickly grew into what some in the comments section regarded as a major, deliberate offense.

“The president’s prepared remarks were posted to our website shortly after they came off embargo at 7:15 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 8,” Bell said, in an email to me earlier this week. A paragraph at the top of the page identified the transcript as being Mr. Obama’s remarks “as prepared for delivery and released by the White House,” and the page was updated later that evening to include full video and audio of the speech, Bell said. The transcript, though, was not updated to reflect the actual remarks until two days after the speech was delivered.

The first comments questioning the accuracy of the transcript and accusing “NewsHour” of bias and conspiracy started Saturday morning, and they quickly grew into the hundreds, overtaking a thread that began as a conversation about the ideas in the speech itself. Bell said that all comments are moderated, but added, “we don’t have staffing around-the-clock, so they can’t always be approved immediately.” It wasn’t until Saturday morning that Maureen Hoch, managing editor of digital news, “checked traffic levels on the site and noticed a spike in traffic from blogs questioning the accuracy of the transcript,” Bell said.

So the inaccurate transcript was up for more than 24 hours before it was corrected — an eternity in any news situation, but especially in one in which a legion of conspiracy theorists  are accusing you of duplicity in the comments on your website.

The New York Times ran the full remarks, as Obama delivered them, as did Politico, NPR, and a host of other news sites.

Lisa Tozzi, deputy national editor for the Times, told me the Times has a set protocol to ensure transcript accuracy. “We may post prepared remarks online,” Tozzi said, “but we will title them ‘prepared remarks.’ “ Once the president has finished his speech, the Times editors then replace the prepared remarks with the transcript of the speech as delivered. They also make it clear where the transcript came from. In the case of Thursday’s speech, the final transcript on the Times site was prepared by the White House.

Tozzi said that Times reporters and editors also “read along with the prepared remarks,” marking areas of departure from the script and documenting what was actually said “so that quotes from the speech that make their way into Times articles are accurate.”

That kind of fact-checking, of course, takes time and resources. For news organizations with less access to such resources, it might be wise to wait and post only the final transcript online, or to at least replace the prepared remarks with the actual remarks as soon as that text is ready. Though “NewsHour” was transparent in identifying the text they provided as “prepared remarks,” the time delay in correcting the transcript fueled the fires of those intent on making the situation out to be yet another conspiracy of the “liberal news media.”

We can’t control how people process and interpret the information we provide. Even after editors at “NewsHour” corrected the transcript and added a note identifying the correction at the beginning of the piece and in the comments, people continued to accuse the organization of bias.

“NewsHour” had taken great care to solicit audience involvement in a discussion about the speech, but those efforts were overshadowed when their own comments section became cluttered with accusations from critics. Taking care to compare the prepared remarks with the speech itself, or simply withholding the text until the final remarks were available, would have eliminated the opportunity for critics to turn an honest mistake into perceived media cover-up.

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  • http://profiles.google.com/rp509855 Rod Paul

    Fascinating how many of the knee-jerk conspiracists don’t even know the difference between NPR and PBS… indicating they claim “bias” based on assumptions and second-hand information at best.

    PBS obviously blew it – but if the knee-jerkers actually read this article, they’d see that NPR got it right.

  • Anonymous

    Under normal circumstances, republicans would be left with saying, “If a republican had said this, the media would have been all over it.”  Except…these are not normal circumstances.  In 2008, Mike Huckabee made the exact same error, and none other than Time Magazine’s reporter Jay Carney (who, apparently, has moved on to another job as of this writing) rather huffily noted the error.  IMO, THAT is what makes this look so much like an attempt to push this down the memory hole.

  • Anonymous

    What a moronic attempt to absolve PBS of their obvious, intentional “mistake.”  Quite simply: neither the public, nor the news media, has ever cared what the president intended to say–ONLY what was ACTUALLY said.  So, in claiming to have posted the “prepared remarks,” (amazingly, after the ACTUAL SPOKEN REMARKS) with the intent to post the “real” remarks later is total BS–only a fool would buy this absurd and deceitful “explanation.”

  • Anonymous

    So when we eventually have a tea party president, you’ll refer to him as the founder of the tea party? No, didn’t think so.

  • Anonymous

    The news hour folks have ready-made jobs waiting for them in the Atlanta Public School System. There they can change things and not get caught helping favorites for years before someone will take notice.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Alec-Rawls/220013 Alec Rawls

    Sorry, but NewsHour was and
    is guilty of a conspiracy for never reporting on the blockbuster implication
    that was brought to their attention by the difference between Obama’s actual remarks and the prepared script on the NPR website. NPR knew that Obama’s Lincoln
    gaffe was his own ad lib, but NPR never reported that Obama’s ad lib was wrong.

    Contrast this to NPR (and
    Poynter) trying to make Palin’s correct statement about Paul Revere warning the
    British into a gaffe. Here is the academic fraud who you (Poynter) give the
    last word to:

    “If people say often enough
    that (Paul Revere) rode through the countryside to warn the British, then maybe
    50 years from now it will be considered true,” Loewen told me in a phone
    interview.

    Palin didn’t say that was Revere’s only purpose, or
    his main purpose. She simply said it happened, and credited Revere with being glad to let the Brits know
    what was happening. What is Loewen’s explanation for Revere in fact telling the British? That Revere was a coward and a
    traitor who spilled the beans under duress? It is obviously Palin, not Loewen,
    who has that one right.

    Palin’s
    correct statement became fodder for numerous news stories, both
    outright false statements that she was wrong, or in your (and NPR’s
    case) finding ways to still slam Palin for her non-mistake. Yet Obama’s Lincoln gaffe goes completely unreported on NPR, and you
    try to absolve them, while having not one word for Obama’s belief that Lincoln was a founder of
    the Republicans, when in fact he was a Whig holdout.
     

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Alec-Rawls/220013 Alec Rawls

    Sorry, but NewsHour was and
    is guilty of a conspiracy for never reporting on the blockbuster implication
    that was brought to their attention by the difference between Obama’s actual remarks and the prepared script on the NPR website. NPR knew that Obama’s Lincoln
    gaffe was his own ad lib, but NPR never reported that Obama’s ad lib was wrong.

    Contrast this to NPR (and
    Poynter) trying to make Palin’s correct statement about Paul Revere warning the
    British into a gaffe. Here is the academic fraud who you (Poynter) give the
    last word to:

    “If people say often enough
    that (Paul Revere) rode through the countryside to warn the British, then maybe
    50 years from now it will be considered true,” Loewen told me in a phone
    interview.

    Palin didn’t say that was Revere’s only purpose, or
    his main purpose. She simply said it happened, and credited Revere with being glad to let the Brits know
    what was happening. What is Loewen’s explanation for Revere in fact telling the British? That Revere was a coward and a
    traitor who spilled the beans under duress? It is obviously Palin, not Loewen,
    who has that one right.

    Palin’s
    correct statement became fodder for numerous news stories, both
    outright false statements that she was wrong, or in your (and NPR’s
    case) finding ways to still slam Palin for her non-mistake. Yet Obama’s Lincoln gaffe goes completely unreported on NPR, and you
    try to absolve them, while having not one word for Obama’s belief that Lincoln was a founder of
    the Republicans, when in fact he was a Whig holdout.
     

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_AOZG2355M55XCAKZ2QSFTVLGHM Richard

    As one blogger sighed, “I get so tired of saying, “Imagine if George Bush had said that’.”

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_AOZG2355M55XCAKZ2QSFTVLGHM Richard

    As one blogger sighed, “I get so tired of saying, “Imagine if George Bush had said that’.”

  • Morgan Collins

    I’m no fan of the President’s, but this “gaffe” is way over-played.  Lincoln was the first Republican president.  It is a very small stretch to refer to the first high office holder of a new party as the “founder” of the party.

  • JadedbyPolitics

    Oh please, your entire write up attacks the obvious, it was a government financed organization doing the liberal two step.  When the media’s numbers in polls are where Congress’s are, it is because they cannot be trusted! 

  • JadedbyPolitics

    Oh please, your entire write up attacks the obvious, it was a government financed organization doing the liberal two step.  When the media’s numbers in polls are where Congress’s are, it is because they cannot be trusted! 

  • Anonymous

    It is impossible to determine if the error was bias or sloppiness. But I’d be willing to bet that if you counted such errors in the mainstream media, the ones favorable to Democrats and liberal would exceed those favorable to Republicans, conservatives and libertarians by a large margin. The media just doesn’t think it’s necessary to fact check lefties.

    Obama would need to say something as laughable as his 57 states before the media would report it. And then most coverage would be protective, minimizing and excusing the gaffe as something everyone does. No mainstream media outlet would ever do that about a misstatement, no matter how minor, by George Bush or Sarah Palin.

    Poynter protects PBS the same way that PBS protects Obama.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ken-Watson/100000378332267 Ken Watson

    I seem to recall some controversy over remarks of one Sarah Palin regarding Paul Revere. Their inarguable historical accuracy and fulness was not enough to overcome media animosity by talking heads who had it demonstrably wrong. So screw explanations. Whether it is stupidity or incompetence it is in the service of protecting the President, an enterprise no one at NPR would be interested in for anyone of their presumptive antagonists. America, that is you.

  • Anonymous

    That is because Sarah Palin went to state colleges and university and thus does not have good credentials. President Obama went to Ivy League schools and thus has the credentials that matter. Those with good credentials need to be given the benefit of the doubt and those without good credentials need to be always reminded of their pathetic inadequacies. We must always remeber to kowtow towards our betters who went to the right schools and give them the benefit of the doubt. 

  • Anonymous

    Um, is there some question about NPR being the official news channel of Democrats and Big Government?  It’s pretty universally acknowledged that our state media organ is, uh, not exactly unbiased..

  • http://profiles.google.com/envirodoc Ken Green

    The question is not whether or not there was an intentional effort to mislead about what Obama said. The question is whether or not the mainstream media was letting a general left-wing bias lead it to downplay or ignore Obama’s gaffe, where it would have been pounding on a Republican who made such a mistake within seconds. The answer to that is obvious: had Sarah Palin or Rick Perry made such remarks, liberals in the media would have been wetting themselves in excitement as they immediately pounded out disparaging comments about more “conservative stupidity.”

    The mainstream media believes liberals are ultra-smart, and if they mis-speak, that’s all it is, a mistake. That same liberal media believes that conservatives are inherently stupid, so any time a conservative mis-speaks, the media portrays it as a demonstration of ignorance.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jorge-Emilio-Emrys-Landivar/37403083 Jorge Emilio Emrys Landivar

    Worse than that.  They are also accused of deleting many of such comments.

  • Anonymous

    So, after removing all of the fluff from the article, your excuse is, basically, that it was someone else’s fault,not yours. Does that about cover it ? Why does that sound so unexpectedly familiar ?

  • Anonymous

    “…We can’t control how people process and interpret the information we provide. Even after editors at “NewsHour” corrected the transcript and added a note identifying the correction at the beginning of the piece and in the comments, people continued to accuse the organization of bias…”

    Could it be, whether or not you are biased, that people listening to, and watching, your coverage, perceive you to be so?  That being the case, the onus is on you to correct whatever you are doing that causes that mis-perception.

  • Anonymous

    They post the transcripts as provided by the White House.  They get immediate feedback from their readers that the transcripts are wrong, and wrong in a newsworthy way.  It takes them two days to fix the transcripts.

    Better hope they’re left wing biased.  because the other option is that they’re completely incompetent.

    If you’re going to take public money, then we the public expect you to be responsive to us.  Adn we get to be cranky when you’re not.

  • Anonymous

    The issue that Poynter ignores (while being snarky about “perceived liberal bias”) is that if Sarah Palin had made the mistake Obama did, the media would have gone into full attack mode. The question many commenters asked at he NewsHour site was why such a historical mistake is ignored when BHO does it and not when a conservative does it.

    Poynter doesn’t like addressing those type questions.

  • Anonymous

    A “transcript” is not the same as “prepared remarks”. If you are handed prepared remarks, publish them as a transcript, and fail to either correct the label or post an actual transcript promptly when the difference between the two includes a gaffe by a President with a history of being coddled by the media (particularly when similar errors have occurred) … yes, lazy is the least offense you could be accused of. Add to that the reports that comments criticizing the failure were being deleted while a correction was emphatically not being made and you have something quite a bit more severe than laziness. How much more should be considered by the NewsHour staff when they compose their public apology.

  • Anonymous

    A “transcript” is not the same as “prepared remarks”. If you are handed prepared remarks, publish them as a transcript, and fail to either correct the label or post an actual transcript promptly when the difference between the two includes a gaffe by a President with a history of being coddled by the media (particularly when similar errors have occurred) … yes, lazy is the least offense you could be accused of. Add to that the reports that comments criticizing the failure were being deleted while a correction was emphatically not being made and you have something quite a bit more severe than laziness. How much more should be considered by the NewsHour staff when they compose their public apology.

  • Tanuki Man

    The prepared remarks are posted immediately upon having the embargo lifted yet the edits to reflect what was actually said take two days? I will give credit that the “transcript” was identified as the prepared remarks but laziness is the most charitable interpretation of the time lag to bring the “transcript” in line with what was actually said.