The line between evaluative reportage and frenzied press release stenography often gets blurred in Washington, and this blurring is a feature, not a bug, of Politico. And so it went, as this sad truth came back to haunt one of that publication's better reporters this week.
Earlier this week, Politico's Glenn Thrush published a story in which Virginia Representative Tom Perriello was quoted at length, discussing the tenor of the discourse he encountered in town halls in his state in an appearance on MSNBC. The way Thrush served up Perriello's quote made it appear as if he was calling out his constituents for racism. As it turns out, behind the truncations, set off by ellipses in the original, there lurked an entirely different statement.
Here's Perriello's words. The boldfaced items indicate the portions that were left out of Thrush's original:
"Well, you know, making the comment or not making the comment doesn't change the reality that clearly this is part of what's going on, but not all of what's going on. I conducted over a hundred hours of town hall meetings in my district in central and southern Virginia and the vast majority of them were civil; people disagreed passionately on ideological grounds. And there were the rare cases where very racist remarks were made. Sometimes they were called out by neighbors in the audience, sometimes they weren't. Clearly, race remains a factor in America but there's also a lot of disagreement here that is genuine here and not based on race, so I think we have to have both conversations."
Appropriately, this earned Thrush no small amount of outrage. Today, the reporter has posted an apology and explanation as to what happened:
A couple of days ago I ran an item on Rep. Tom Perriello (D-Va.), who appeared on MSNBC to talk about the town halls -- and commented that he had witnessed some racist comments over the summer.
The video, which had gone viral among conservatives, was sent to me by a tipster. I watched it, thought it was interesting, and began to transcribe the key parts. As I was transcribing, I got an email from a NRCC spokesman Andy Sere, who wanted to comment on it, appending what appeared to be a full a transcript of the exchange.
A time saver, I thought, so I cut-and-pasted. What I didn't immediately realize was that Sere had replaced key words -- that provided important context --with elipses. When the error was pointed out, I quickly fixed it.
"The fault wasn't Sere's," Thrush says, "He's a partisan operative, not a transcription service. It was mine."
I think the actions taken here by Thrush are very forthright and complete. And this is a -- sadly -- very rare peek at how so much of this sausage gets made. I am glad that he took the time to explain what happened. But hey, I have to say, I feel a little chumped out today because as someone who's very openly praised and recommended Thrush as a reporter, this is a serious hack moment. Thrush was handed a truncated quote that came bundled with an official statement from the NRCC, which Thrush included in his original report. There should have been a moment, prior to publication, where Thrush questioned the neatly wrapped gift he received from this party operative. There should have been a moment where he made use of the extant video of Perriello's actual remarks. And there should have been a moment where he evaluated whether this really advanced a news story, or someone else's cause.
This didn't happen, and the moment passed. What Sere subsequently managed to get into the Politico is what I'd call, borrowing from Fred Exley, an "outrageous wink." And as a friend of mine is fond of pointing out, "a wink eventually becomes a twitch, a twitch the sign of some inner disturbance."
UPDATE: The NRCC offered The Plum Line's Greg Sargent a statement, in which they insist that "The comment stands. The video tape doesn't lie." Read the full statement here.
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