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From AJR,   September 2002  issue

What Did He Say?   

The official White House transcript doesn’t always record the flubs and malapropisms uttered by presidents and their press secretaries. When should stenographers correct the record, and when does cleaning up look like sanitizing?


By Rachel Smolkin
     

In the nascent days of the war on terrorism, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer stood behind his briefing podium and cautioned Americans to "watch what they say." But his admonition, repeated in newspapers and magazines and on talk shows, did not initially appear in the official White House transcript.

During an April visit to Connecticut, President Bush inadvertently urged Americans to volunteer for "4,000 years" and misidentified the state's lieutenant governor. But in the official White House transcript, the president encouraged Americans to volunteer for a less ambitious "4,000 hours" and correctly stated the lieutenant governor's last name. The crowd's laughter at his "4,000 years" gaffe was not included, nor were the taunts of hecklers a day earlier in Tennessee. At a White House photo opportunity in May, Bush repeatedly bumbled the name of an American reporter for Reuters of Pakistani descent. But the transcript recorded Arshad Mohammed's name properly and didn't mention the stumbles.

These incidents highlight the challenges that White House stenographers confront in producing timely transcripts that are both accurate and readable. Employed by a private contractor, the stenographers turn around a 30-minute speech in about half an hour, quickly recording history and aiding journalists, who have grown increasingly reliant on transcripts. Rather than rushing to endless briefings, reporters can use that time to make calls and interview sources.

But what if those official transcripts don't reflect what really happened?

Stenographers, reporters and press secretaries agree that transcripts should offer a verbatim recording of the president's words. But a "verbatim" standard still invites divergent opinions over how to handle jeers and applause, false starts, mispronunciations and misidentifications. Recording every pause, every "er" and "um," can needlessly garble a transcript. Reproducing incorrect names can confuse readers and generate a historically inaccurate record. Crowd reactions can elude stenographers listening to audio feeds.

"At one level, [transcripts] are a snapshot of history, but at another level, they're simply another tool of the hardworking White House reporter," says Mike McCurry, who served as press secretary to President Bill Clinton. "It's here to help those who do record for posterity. It doesn't supplant the work of the journalist, who has to look and watch and absorb all the elements critical to covering the moment."

But even minor transcript changes or omissions frustrate reporters, who generally espouse a verbatim standard that permits cleanup of "er" and "um" but demands inclusion of false starts, malapropisms and misidentifications.

"There should be no cleanup at all," says CBS News correspondent Mark Knoller, who has covered six presidents. "The transcripts should be just that: verbatim texts of what the president said."

Four to five full-time stenographers assigned to the White House transcribe speeches and public remarks by the president as well as briefings by the press secretary and other senior administration officials. A stenographer proofreads a finished transcript, then e-mails it to White House aides. The press office releases it to reporters, and the office of media affairs posts it on the White House Web site (www.whitehouse.gov).

Bureaucrats pay close attention to the transcripts, which can establish White House priorities and quell agency disputes. Diplomats scrutinize them to glean signals about administration shifts on international policy. And reporters use them as a constant tool to supplement their notes or compensate for their absences from speeches and briefings.

White House reporters, while declaring respect and appreciation for the stenographers' professionalism, have noted a few discrepancies this year. Veteran reporters say the occasional lapses are not new to the Bush administration, and they also point out that transcript changes occur far more frequently in Congress, where lawmakers often revise and extend their remarks in the Congressional Record.

In a playful White House notebook column headlined "Should History Record the Unvarnished Bush?" the Washington Post's Dana Milbank described the Bridgeport, Connecticut, stumbles, the omission of hecklers in Knoxville, Tennessee, and the initial absence of Fleischer's advice to Americans.

"Last Tuesday was one for the presidential blooper reel," Milbank opined on April 16.

Milbank's colleague Al Kamen followed with a May 10 "In the Loop" column that contrasted Bush's ease of pronunciation in the official White House transcript with his stumbles over Arshad Mohammed's name in the private Federal News Service transcript. Federal News Service records major daily events in Washington and makes transcripts available to news organizations, embassies and businesses that pay for them.

These discrepancies, however, were either innocent mistakes or judgment calls, says Peggy Suntum, director of the White House Stenographers Office. She says she doesn't want reporters and the public to believe that White House stenographers are politically motivated or encouraged to sanitize transcripts. Neither, she says, is a correct assumption.

Reporters haven't charged that the White House has ordered stenographers to omit or fix the gaffes. But the corrections do raise questions. "They tell me, and I believe them, that they're not getting pressure from the White House – certainly no overt pressure," Milbank says, "but it's impossible to say what kind of subtle pressure they feel."

Suntum says stenographers simply erred in overlooking Fleischer's comment because they were trying to release the transcript quickly and didn't check the tape recording. The "4,000 years" incident and the amended reporter's name reflected a clarification decision by stenographers.

The stenographers produce a verbatim transcript to present an event as closely as possible to the way it occurred. But they don't include every "er and um," says Suntum. If the president says part of a word and then corrects himself immediately, they do not include partial words.

Such was the case with the "4,000 years" snafu. Suntum says Bush didn't get the full word out and then corrected himself a "nanosecond" later to say "4,000 hours." She says the laughter that Milbank described as accompanying the snafu is inaudible at that point in the tape--and the Tennessee hecklers' jeers a day earlier were indecipherable.

The stenographers fixed Connecticut Lt. Gov. Jodi Rell's last name after the president called her "Judy Kell" because they generally transcribe correct names to avoid muddling the historical record, Suntum explains. Her first name is still written incorrectly as "Judy," an apparent oversight.

Every rule has an exception, though, and stenographers do intentionally record incorrect names if an incident seems destined to create news. If a president botched a foreign leader's name, his mistake would go into the transcript. Or, for example, when President Ronald Reagan incorrectly addressed boxer Sugar Ray Leonard and his wife, the stenographers didn't correct him. The Great Communicator warmly greeted the welterweight champion and Olympic gold medalist by saying, "It's good to meet you, Sugar Ray and Mrs. Ray," Suntum recalls. That slip appeared in the transcript.

Suntum describes Fleischer's missed comment, however, as an ill-timed and unfortunate oversight. Reporters asked Fleischer to respond to an ethnic slur by Rep. John Cooksey, R-La., and to an assertion by comedian Bill Maher that American military forces, rather than the terrorists, were cowards. Fleischer replied that the incidents were "reminders to all Americans that they need to watch what they say."

But the stenographer typing that day missed the phrase, Suntum says. Usually another stenographer proofs the transcript against a tape, but that day the backup also failed. Suntum opted to release the transcript immediately so reporters could have it as quickly as possible. "That was strictly a mistake and an accident on my part because I didn't catch that it wasn't in there," she says.

When reporters seized on Fleischer's warning--and its absence from the transcript--the stenographers checked the tape and realized their error. They corrected the transcript and reported their oversight to Fleischer. "He was quite gracious in not screaming and yelling at us," Suntum says. "He just said, 'Mistakes happen.' " But the incident sparked stories about the White House sanitizing material. Fleischer's remark was, after all, the only phrase lost in the transcript.

During her almost 20 years as a White House stenographer, however, Suntum says no administration has ever requested or even hinted that she alter a transcript. Stenographers sometimes make judgment calls based on the transcript's readability but not because an administration is pressuring or encouraging them to clean up the president's remarks, she says.

The one minor incident she can recall occurred early in Clinton's first term, the night of a congressional speech. The president confused two words--Suntum thinks they were "debt" and "deficit." She recorded the words as the president said them, but added an asterisk that indicated what the president meant to say. She then brought the transcript to a junior aide to explain what she had done.

The aide suggested she take out the asterisk and simply correct the president's misstatement. But when the aide called George Stephanopoulos, then a senior policy adviser to Clinton, to check the proper procedure, Stephanopoulos said to keep the asterisk in the transcript.

White House reporters don't always agree that transcript changes are appropriate. And some aren't shy about approaching stenographers with a complaint.

CBS' Mark Knoller is so vigilant that Nanda Chitre, a former deputy press secretary to Clinton, cites him as a primary reason why administration officials probably wouldn't bother sanitizing transcripts even if they felt so inclined. "If you do change a transcript, you can be sure that Mark will be all over you," Chitre says. "You can't escape him. The man is such a presence and has such a booming voice."

"You don't change what the president said," insists Knoller, who has reminded stenographers, "You're constructing the record of the presidency."

Knoller recalls that Clinton urged Americans to vote on Election Day in 2000--and then got the day wrong. Amused, Knoller did a short story on Clinton's stumble. But when he checked the transcript, the date was correct.

"You can't be doing that," Knoller told Suntum. Realizing that Clinton merely misspoke, she had wanted the transcript to include an accurate date. But when Knoller approached her, Suntum agreed and changed the transcript to record the incorrect date, but the correct words of the president.

While quick to note discrepancies, White House reporters also credit stenographers with faithfully recording stumbles or emotional outbursts that might embarrass an administration. But transcripts have their limitations even when stenographers record every word a president says.

In August 1996, CBS White House correspondent Bill Plante and other reporters questioned Clinton about a White House pledge to pay the legal bills of a fired travel office employee who was accused of fraud but was later acquitted. Clinton angrily rejected the previous statements of spokesmen who said he would support a bill to reimburse the employee. "Are we going to pay the legal expenses of every person in America who is ever acquitted of an offense?" he asked.

Exuding what the Washington Post later called a "frosty formality," an increasingly irritated president called reporters "sir" with a "sharp bite" to his voice.

The transcript accurately recorded the president's words, but because stenographers do not include notes about tone, it didn't reflect Clinton's rising temper. "If you read the words on paper, you would never have known the president had a major hissy fit," McCurry says.

Long before press conferences provided a platform for spirited on-the-record exchanges between presidents and reporters, stenographers toiled at the White House. In "Who Speaks for the President? The White House Press Secretary from Cleveland to Clinton," former Associated Press White House reporter W. Dale Nelson describes how George Bruce Cortelyou began his White House career as President Grover Cleveland's personal stenographer.

During President William McKinley's administration, Courtelyou provided the traveling press corps with advance texts of McKinley's speeches and instructed stenographers to record the president's extemporaneous remarks. President Dwight D. Eisenhower held the first televised press conference nearly 60 years later. Press secretary James C. Hagerty hired a stenographic firm to rush transcripts to reporters but reserved the right to edit them. Fourteen answers were edited out, Nelson writes, including one in which Eisenhower couldn't recall the name of the labor statistics commissioner and another in which he referred to Indochina as Indonesia.

Nelson also notes discrepancies between President Lyndon B. Johnson's news conferences and his transcripts. Johnson once told reporters that lawmakers "were" involved in spreading cabinet resignation rumors; the White House transcript said "could be."

(Hearst Newspapers columnist Helen Thomas--who has covered the White House since January 20, 1961--recalls that Johnson also instructed an aide to write reporters' names next to their questions on transcripts. That way, Thomas explains, he'd know whom to hate. "He would read [the transcripts] at lunch and choke on them," she says. "He'd be apoplectic.")

Some of the presidential slipups, however, aren't worthy of a lot of attention--whether they're recorded in transcripts or not. Stenographers should produce a verbatim account of the president's words, says Carl Leubsdorf, Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News, but reporters have an obligation to put gaffes in perspective and "not to make more of it than is warranted." He describes the "Bushisms" that enliven transcripts as "amusing but probably not terribly relevant.... The public gets a lot less excited about this stuff than we do. With Reagan we used to write about it, and the last time I looked, he got reelected carrying 49 states."

James M. Naughton, president of the Poynter Institute and a former White House reporter for the New York Times, says that reporters themselves often grapple with issues of accuracy versus clarity when they quote public officials and private citizens (see "Are Quotes Sacred?" September 1995).

"The issue of cleaning up quotations is the same that we all struggle with in stylebooks and print publications," he says. "It seems unfair to expect a different or higher standard of government than we would employ ourselves."

As students of the spoken word, White House stenographers take pride in their mastery of language and their interest in unusual words that may escape less attentive listeners.

At one press conference, McCurry used the word "floccinaucinihilipilification," which means a belief that something is worthless. McCurry said that the stenographers would never get the word right and referred reporters to the office of then-Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., for guidance, because McCurry had heard Moynihan use the word.

But the resolute stenographers spelled the word correctly without even calling Moynihan's office. And they tweaked the irreverent McCurry: He recalls his transcript noting that he had mispronounced the word.

Another day, McCurry explained Clinton's earlier ambiguity on Russia by saying the president "obnubilated."

The stenographers exchanged surprised glances "like, 'What did he say?' " Chitre recalls, but they dutifully recorded the word in the transcript. Impressed with McCurry's erudition, New York Times columnist William Safire praised "The Great Obnubilator" in his April 19, 1998, "On Language" column and gently chided the press corps.

"Nobody demanded an explanation of the word, suggesting that everyone in the pressroom was familiar with it or was too shy to ask," Safire wrote. "Not me; I looked it up to find the Latin obnubilare, 'to cover with clouds or fog.' "

But the stenographers were right to wonder why McCurry had picked such an unusual word. Chitre used to send McCurry the Merriam-Webster online "Word of the Day," and McCurry endeavored to use some of the words to illustrate White House events.

The chosen word on that particular morning? "Obnubilate."