Why the AFP Omitted a Question in Assad Interview Transcript, and how it relates to the Pope-Trump Brouhaha

How the media baits World leaders to comment on Trump relishing the inevitable news created when they do.

February 19, 2016

Introduction

Given that media organizations spin interviews and comments from personalities – politicians, celebrities, athletes – to fit into certain pre-conceived narratives and sensationalist headlines, I check with transcripts from the source when trying to ascertain not just what was said but in what context.

So for anything that the Russian leadership is alleged to have said, I check with the Kremlin site (for Putin), the Russian Foreign Ministry site (for Lavrov) or the Russian Government site (for Medvedev). Similarly I use the White House site (for Obama) and the State Department site (for Kerry).  For Assad’s statements I check against the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) or Syrian President’s website.

The AFP-Assad Interview

On February 12, 2016, AFP interviewed the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus.  The full English transcript was posted on SANA a few hours after AFP broke the news of the interview with some key comments from Assad (as ascertained by AFP).  A few hours after SANA,  AFP released its English transcript of the interview.

I quickly perused both to see if the wordings differed in any great manner.   While I didn’t do an exact diff, there were two immediate omissions I noticed in the AFP transcript.

The first was an innocuous one:  the SANA transcript began and ended with some routine courtesies by the journalists interviewing Assad.  The AFP transcript omitted that (perhaps that’s standard policy or perhaps it didn’t want to be seen as being courteous to Assad).

The second was more interesting.  In questioning Assad about whether he thought that the 2016 US Presidential election results would have any bearing on the US Government attitude towards Syria, AFP asked (from the SANA transcript)

Who is more aggressive, or more inclined to war, Trump or Clinton?

This question was omitted in the AFP transcript as seen in a side-by-side comparison.  

Why the AFP Transcript Omitted the Question

Curious about the omission I posed a question on Twitter to Maya Gebeily, the Beirut AFP correspondent as to the reason for the difference.  She tweeted back with disarming transparency:

@LudWitt honestly editorial decision was that it didn’t add much to the interview — & we were worried we’d give more fodder to trump 🙂

In other words, the AFP editors didn’t want to be seen as providing more fuel to the hyper-sensitive and manic US Election spinmeisters about who was a bigger warmonger, Trump or Clinton which they knew would detract from the bigger news from Assad interview (which is worth reading in full).

As it fortunately happened for AFP, Assad did not take the bait and his answer was just a continuation of a previous one – that it wouldn’t make a difference since the US Government machinery was essentially hostile to his Government. So AFP could safely omit the question without omitting anything Assad said and without an apparent discontinuity in the answer.

One wonders what would happened if Assad answered one way or another.  The Pope’s remarks offer a clue.

The Pope-Trump Brouhaha

AFP’s caution in omitting the Trump or Clinton question, and actually not even highlighting Assad’s general answer on the US elections, seem well founded given the furor over Pope Francis being set-up by being asked a question about Trump’s policies.

The Pope responded as one would expect and at a high level, especially given his presence in Mexico and Trump’s by now well known stance on Mexican immigrants, but this was immediately blown up as a headline “Pope criticizes Trump” narrative.

And of course Trump – who the media knows will react in an unhinged manner to the smallest perceived insult, criticism or remark with both barrels – didn’t disappoint with a lengthy Facebook post that he read in front of an audience, calling the Pope misinformed and his comments implying interference in political matters “a disgrace” and followed up with typical nonsensical retweets about the Vatican walls and the Vatican’s own immigration policy.  The Pope later said his comments should not be seen as a personal attack and that he didn’t mean to imply that Catholics should vote one way or the other. Meanwhile Trump also toned down his earlier more belligerent commentary speaking of his “great respect for the pope.”

The Media’s Role 

The media, its overall role slowly eroding due to various information readily being on-line and verifiable from the source itself; diminishing profit margins; lack of trust in their reporting by the general population, seem now to be increasingly resorting to the kind of bait-and-response questions and provoking feuds to create news and relevance, a practice more associated with Hollywood coverage than serious journalism.  (Indeed the glee with which many media outlets embraced the Pope-Trunp news complete with satire and of course post-orgasmic punditry, shows how news machinery works.)

The thing to note is just like Americans don’t understand the nuances of some other country’s domestic political situation  (though this doesn’t stop the US Government from barging into far more complex countries, guns blazing and calling one set of folks the “good guys” and others the “bad guys”), World leaders aren’t tuning in to the latest feud between Trump and Cruz or Cruz and Rubio or Trump and Clinton or Sanders and Clinton or the various demographic laden politics in the United States and all the special interests and spin-meisters on all sides.  They have other things to do like, you know, manage their own country’s issues and they catch some high level snippets of the US Elections in their briefings or readings.  Yet they are baited for comments by eager reporters and their words blown up to create the latest media sensation.  I mean how many people in the US now even knew what else the Pope said in Mexico?

Recall similar headlines and punditry regarding Trump and Putin when the latter was asked a specific question about Trump AFTER a three hour presser when he was signing autographs amidst a throng of jostling reporters.  I wrote about the ridiculous memes generated by what Putin – who is not glued to the TV following the Republican primaries – assumed was a diplomatic response.

Conclusion

As long as the media continues to bait Foreign Leaders about Trump or indeed other candidates, their responses will be blown up to fuel manufactured feuds.  Whether this is how the media decides to remain relevant and a good way for healthy discourse, is something their reporters, editors and owners ought to carefully consider.

Postscript

I remain troubled by the integrity of tampering with a transcript whether by AFP or others.

Indeed I tweeted (without a response back) to the Russian Government Twitter account about the much more consequential difference between what it claims Medvedev said in his interview to Handelsblatt regarding the consequences of ground invasion of foreign forces in Syria.  The Russian Government transcript (both in Russian and English) has him saying it could cause a “new war in the World” versus a “new World War” that Handelsblatt insists he said (in response to my question). 
The effect of pointing out this discrepancy was Handelsblatt publishing its transcript with a remark claiming that the Russian Government had later softened Medvedev’s remarks in its transcript, i.e. an implicit claim that the Russian Government had altered its transcripts to reflect what Medvedev may have meant versus what he actually said. (A video or audio would be the best source, but I have not seen one released.)

Unedited transcripts should be treated like untampered scientific data key to ensure that the interested reader or researcher can draw their own conclusions without the spin of the reporter or editor.

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