January 21, 2004

WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO THE WASHINGTON POST? This “News Analysis” piece by David Von Drehle misquotes Bush to make U.S. operations in Iraq sound less multilateral:

“Some critics have said” U.S. foreign policy is too unilateral, Bush allowed, before ticking off a list of 17 countries with troops in Iraq and citing his teamwork with “the international community” to contain threats in North Korea and Iran.

But here’s what Bush actually said:

Some critics have said our duties in Iraq must be internationalized. This particular criticism is hard to explain to our partners in Britain, Australia, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, Italy, Spain, Poland, Denmark, Hungary, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Romania, the Netherlands, Norway, El Salvador, and the 17 other countries that have committed troops to Iraq.

(Emphasis added.) So the Post characterization actually halves the number of countries involved. (Yeah, Bush only “ticks off” 17 of them, but he mentions the other 17. Not reporting that is pretty hard to defend). Darren Kaplan — who noticed this before I did, and whose post has more background — is certainly “ticked off” at the Post.

Until recently, the Post has been a lot fairer than this. What gives?

UPDATE: A reader emails:

Looks like they “selectively quoted” him, rather than misquoting. By Washington Post standards, that’s considered exercising “good editorial judgement.” Some might call it spin, and some will, and they will be correct.

Actually, I think it’s worse than that. It’s an indirect quote — and it’s an inaccurate indirect quote. That’s not just selective quotation — it’s a misrepresentation of what Bush actually said. A relatively small one, compared to some others, but one for which there’s no real excuse. As Kaplan points out, other papers managed to get it right.

Meanwhile, Porphyrogenitus emails with this explanation for the Post’s shift: “It’s an election year.”

ANOTHER UPDATE: Newspaperman reader Jon Ham emails:

In addition to the selective inaccurate quoting, the Post’s copy editors didn’t catch the Copy Editing 101 glitch in the piece. A policy can’t be “too unilateral.” It’s either unilateral or it’s not. There are no degrees of unilateral, just as there are no degrees of unique.

Good point. I had missed that.

MORE: Reader Dave Robertson says that Ham is wrong:

Mr. Ham would be correct if only real definitions were applied. But in anti-Bush political speech, “unilateral” means either “without prior UN approval” or “without active participation of France & Germany”. No matter how many nations participate, Iraq will always be unilateral. Too unilateral is the emphatic variant of unilateral.

And since Bush was already unilateral in Iraq, multilateral can never be applied to any Bush endeavor. Therefore, the U.S. is being unilateral in North Korea by wanting to have multi-nation talks. The multilateral position would be for the U.S. to agree to North Korea’s demands and have on-on-one talks.

What worries me is that this makes sense. . . .

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