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.
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.