Thursday, June 16, 2005

Rumsfeld redux

The BBC did two articles based on the Rumsfeld interview, here and here. Neither is entirely faithful to the actual tone of the interview.

In the first, the BBC quotes Rumsfeld as saying "I think the US is notably unskilful in our communications and our public diplomacy," and trumpets in its headline "Rumsfeld points to image problem." But, as it turns out, he didn't. The image problem was raised not by Rumsfeld, but by interviewer David Frost, who went on to ask Rumsfeld how to fix it. In responding, Rumsfeld did suggest that the US does a poor PR job, but he also strongly rejected the image as false, and even suggested that he's not at all sure that improved PR would accomplish anything, two points which the BBC left out in order to hype the "unskillful" sentence. This was the exchange:

Q: What about these polls that come out with rather depressing news? There was that poll of 15 countries where there US was level as a threat to world peace with two of the countries we've been talking about, Syria and North Korea. What can you do to improve the figures of these polls, or the reality behind it?

Rumsfeld: I suppose, in partial answer to your question, that I'm not the best one to ask. But I thinks it's always been true that the large country, the most powerful country tends to be the one that people would like to bring down or tweak, and that's always going - I also think that the United States is notably unskillful in our communications and our public diplomacy. I think that we need to do a better job. Now, what that will accomplish, I don't know. [there is an obvious cut at this point away from something else Rumsfeld says]

Q; So you think that America doesn't do as great a job as it could?

Rumsfeld: But the idea that America is what is wrong with the world, it seems to me just isn't supported by the facts. If one looks at, what is the country that people want to come to, and to live, and to work? The Untied States has long lines. What's the country that people look to for assistance? The US has a record of doing that. Which is the country that did the most in the tsunami? [another cut]

I think this gives a significantly different tone than the spin placed on it in the BBC article.

In the second article, the BBC's headline shouts "Iraq 'no more safe than in 2003'"'. Despite the BBC's use of quotation marks, that is not what Rumsfeld said. Again, here is the exchange:
Q: Do you believe the security situation in Iraq is better today than it was on the day after the war ended?

Rumsfeld: Well, statistically, no. But clearly it has been getting better as we’ve gone along. In other words, at the end of the war, the army fled, was captured in many large – thousands, tens of thousands were captured and the country was defeated. The insurgency then built over a period of time and, it’s had it ups and downs, and clearly they made an effort during the election period, on January 30th to try to derail the election and prevent it from happening, but the Iraqi security forces now number 169,000, the efforts on the part of the coalition countries have shifted from counterinsurgency to helping the Iraqi security forces, and they’ve had some important political milestones. They’ve had an election, they’ve got a government, they’re now working on a constitution and a lot of the bad things that could have happened have not happened.

Clearly, on the statistical point, Rumsfeld is responding to the specific question put to him, but the BBC article makes it appear that Rumsfeld is making a statement about progress in Iraq more generally, which it accomplishes by hiding both the actual question which prompted his response and his more extensive explanation. Indeed, by not including his full explanation, the BBC makes Rumsfeld appear incoherent. It quotes him saying that "Statistically, no," the security situation had not improved, but that "clearly it has been getting better..." Taken in isolation, these two assertions make no sense. However, within the context of his full response, they do. He is making a distinction between a statistical reality and a political reality. His point is that, of course on the day after Saddam fell, since there was no insurgency yet in existence, there could be no deaths due to the insurgents. Hence the statistical fact that the number of deaths has increased. However, in political terms, great strides have been made towards a more general seucirty of the nation - the creation of a domestic security force and a democratically elected government clearly provide more security than having no domestic security force and no goverment.

It's subtle and nuanced, but fairly typical of the way the BBC (and the media in general) removes quotations from their context in order to hype the story they want to tell instead of the story that being told to them. To be fair to the BBC, they did link to the interview so it could be seen in context, but how many readers will take the time and effort to do so?


Anonymous Mark said...

I think that perhaps the way some British media characterize news is not unlike the media in the U.S. I've seen it often in election contests in the U.S. A candidate will give an hour-long speech, but the media will take a single sentence the candidate said, the one they deem to be the most interesting or controversial, and interpret and analyze it, ignoring the rest. Secondly, I've noticed that British politicians communicate ideas differently than U.S. politicians, or in this case, a bureaucrat does. In contrast, British politicians are more direct and I'd say "open" in their communication style. I've seen some interviews with Blair, and it's like having a sit-down conversation with a colleague. Contrast that with an interview of Bush, or any U.S. president, and it's almost a difference between night and day. U.S. presidents or other political figures tend to speak in broad political themes. I haven't seen that with the Brits. I understand that they have a bias, but perhaps this difference in communication style adds to their misperception of what we say and stand for.

11:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Er, Rumsfeld DID say the US was notably unskilled, I saw him say it, unless your accusing the beeb of dubbing his words, id shut up.

6:59 AM  

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