Was It Editing ... or Misleading Splicing?

BBC ‘Newsnight’ Editing of Obama Inaugural Address Prompts Criticisms

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BBC ‘Newsnight’
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One of the proudest and most credible names in journalism, BBC, has found itself challenged on its questionable editing and splicing of President Obama’s science and climate change remarks during his inauguration on January 20.

The issue involves whether BBC’s self-described “montage” distorted the meaning of Obama’s references to elevating science and combating climate change by appearing to have him say something he never said.

At least not in so many words.

News Analysis

It’s another case – remember CBS news anchor Dan Rather’s undoing at the hands of a blogger who found his case against George W. Bush wanting during the 2004 presidential elections? – of the new digital-age media blowing the whistle on an established mainline news outlet, in this case one of the world’s most established and most mainline.

Here’s how it happened:

BBC’s daily “Newsnight” current affairs program opened with what it portrayed as a quote from the newly sworn-in President Obama:

We will restore science to its rightful place, [and] roll back the specter of a warming planet. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories.

Obama’s voice aired over a collage of images that did not include him actually making the remarks. (To see the actual video, go here.)

‘Couldn’t Have Been Clearer’? So Why Edit?

The BBC announcer followed up: “President Obama couldn’t have been clearer today. And for most scientists his vote of confidence would not have come a moment too soon.”

Perhaps true, but more so had those been the new President’s actual words … and in their actual sequence. While many are struck by the new President’s early commitment both to science and to combating manmade climate change, the would-be quotation in fact “only exists in a digital file concocted by a sound engineer,” according to the attentive blogger who blew the whistle on the BBC editing.

The blogger, known as TonyN at Harmless Sky, a conservative blog often skeptical of climate science, went back to the original footage of the Obama inauguration address. He wrote that the key components of that quotation above actually were pieced together from segments of different paragraphs.

From the official transcript of Obama’s speech, key sentences from the relevant paragraphs read as follows (the bold face words were pieced into the opening quote above):

For everywhere we look, there is work to be done. The state of our economy calls for action, bold and swift. And we will act, not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We’ll restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories.

And from a paragraph further down in Obama’s address:

We are the keepers of this legacy. Guided by these principles once more we can meet those new threats that demand even greater effort, even greater cooperation and understanding between nations. We will begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan. With old friends and former foes, we’ll work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat and roll back the specter of a warming planet.

The President immediately followed that comment by saying, “We will not apologize for our way of life.”

‘Fancy Editing’ … Or Schlocky?

Some call it “fancy editing,” and others, while not necessarily suggesting that the end result grossly miscasts the President’s perspective, call it careless, and potentially misleading.

After TonyN posted his blog pointing to the BBC editing, another blog, stinkyjournalism.org, got into the act and advanced the story. (Stinkyjournalism.org is a journalism watchdog group published by the Art Science Research Laboratory, a nonprofit founded in 1996 by Stephen Jay Gould and Rhonda Roland Shearer.)

Stinkyjournalism.org writers Shearer and Danielle Elliot complained that the BBC editing of three elements into what the viewer would see as a single continuous statement conveys a false impression. Their basic concern: the splicing/editing appeared to overstate the new President’s commitment to science specifically as that commitment may relate to environmental and climate change concerns.

BBC Response: No Correction Needed

Responding to the stinkyjournalism.org criticism, Newsnight Editor Peter Rippon said the splicing “was designed to give people an impression or montage of what was said about science. It is routine for broadcasters to edit speeches.” He said the editing was “signposted to audiences with [audio] fades between each point.

“The issue is whether in doing that you are unfair to the person giving the speech,” Rippon argued. “There is nothing I need to correct.”

Also responding to stinkyjournalism.org, another BBC official – Communications Manager, News – similarly rejected suggestions of mis-editing, saying the assembled montage “in no way altered the meaning or misrepresented what the President was saying.”

As for the audio fades? “The video shows the aforementioned quote is the opening continuous statement with no discernible fades in-between phrases,” wrote Shearer and Elliot.

They next sought opinions from three academics. Among those responding, Al Tompkins, the Poynter Institute’s group leader for broadcast/online, replied, “I think people understand the news involves editing. But we must strive to keep the editing in context, maintain accuracy and authenticity. This kind of editing really harms public trust.”

“Cobbling all three phases together,” Shearer and Elliot wrote, “when discovered gives the appearance, if not the actuality, of BBC’s intent to distort Obama’s words into a coherent statement and emphasis on ‘environment’ when it did not exist.”

Too sweeping a judgment? Perhaps. But the dubious and un-flagged editing of Obama’s inaugural address nonetheless gave impetus to those wanting to draw their own conclusions in the face of growing signs that Obama’s commitment to addressing climate change appears to be for real and consistent with his campaign promises.

Bud Ward

Bud Ward is editor of The Yale Forum (E-mail: bud@yaleclimatemediaforum.org).
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3 Responses to BBC ‘Newsnight’ Editing of Obama Inaugural Address Prompts Criticisms

  1. Mark Chopping says:

    This is all smoke and no fire.

    “…the dubious and un-flagged editing of Obama’s inaugural address nonetheless gave impetus to those wanting to draw their own conclusions.”

    Ah well, they will draw their own conclusions now, won’t they? Who is surprised that a conservative, denialist, anti-science blogger would question such a straightforward BBC video presentation? Btw, please desist from giving such people the title of “skeptic” — most are not skeptical but simply driven by some other agenda, and usually libertarian political ideology (why yes, the UK-based Harmless Sky site is anti-wind power: Q.E.D.). Scientists on the other hand are (supposed to be) trained skeptics. Why give the deniers free publicity here? Because they happen to have a point of view? To be fair and balanced?

    Anyone can question editing and splicing, especially of a video segment. The pertinent question is “was the intent of the speech accurately conveyed?”. In my view the BBC’s reporting did accurately convey the meaning of the speech. Although you are free to disagree, why not compare with other speeches from the same era? For example, Obama’s speech of January 26, 2009. But wait! Can you find a transcript of Obama’s speech of January 26 in or at the New York Times? Shockingly, I could not. Instead, the NYT had its own article ‘New Day on Climate Change’, here. I was perplexed: the speech could be found readily at Joe Romm’s ClimateProgress blog or at the Washington Post. But not at the NYT. Instead it merely published an editorial where the content of the speech was filtered through a narrow lens and only favorite themes (EPA, mpg, California, states’ rights etc.) were rehashed. The thinking is so parochial, so petty — and no transcript in sight.

    An unbiased reading of Obama’s January 26 speech (as well as the NYT op-ed headline) corroborates the BBC’s interpretation of the intent of the inaugural speech: it is very far from “grossly miscasting the President’s perspective”, “careless”, “a distortion”, or
    “potentially misleading” (“potentially”?). Those are indeed too sweeping judgments. Of course, it remains to be seen how committed the Obama administration is to seeing this through — and how successful its initiatives will be.

    P.S. your “go here” link is broken.

    P.P.S. I often write to the BBC with complaints — if there is something to complain about.

    P.P.P.S. when will real journalists decide it’s time to do real journalism for a living instead of running blogs? I would pay real money for real journalism but I will not pay for blogs.

  2. @Mark Chopping –Since when is an audio soundtrack (that a listener assumes is a literal, untampered-statement), the same as a “BBC’s interpretation” ( a cobbled together “montage” of out-of-sequence phrases)?

    A person’s words–spoken or written–are sacred. No fabrications allowed unless there is disclosure according to any stylebook.

  3. Jack Hughes says:

    I’m with Rhonda here: a faked quote is always a faked quote.