Did anybody else happen to catch our friend E. J. Dionne doing his weekly “political roundtable” gig on “All Things Considered” last night? David Brooks, Dionne’s usual amiable sparring partner, was on vacation, and taking his place was Mona Charen. I didn’t know Mona Charen before last night, but Wikipedia identifies her as “the author of two best-selling books, Useful Idiots: How Liberals Got it Wrong in the Cold War and Still Blame America First (2003) and Do-Gooders: How Liberals Harm Those They Claim to Help — and the Rest of Us (2005). Her political stance is conservative.” You don’t say! Anyway, based just on that I’d say she’s not a natural fit for the job, but perhaps every other conservative commentator is on vacation this weekend along with Brooks. (Has the National Review cruise set sail?)
Now that I have become acquainted with Ms. Charen, the best thing I can say for her is that she made me appreciate David Brooks. I don’t have a high opinion of his analysis, but what he offers is, at least, analysis; what Charen had to offer was overt political spin. She seemed to think her role was not to offer a conservative (or a conservative-friendly) perspective on the week’s events but to be an outright spokesperson for the Romney campaign. Her response to questions about the revelation that Romney may have lied about his role at Bain post-1999 was that it just showed the Obama campaign was clearly desperate not to talk about the real issues. When the topic turned to Romney’s NAACP performance, she called his speech “beautiful” — three times. (They also talked about the rumors that Condoleezza Rice might be Romney’s VP pick, and both commentators were skeptical. In this case I thought Charen did her job, by pointing out something Dionne didn’t mention as an obstacle — Rice’s prochoice views.)
This morning I found myself wondering whether I hallucinated the whole thing. So I checked NPR.org. There I found an archive of a chat between Dionne and Charen, moderated by Melissa Brooks — but it is not at all the segment that aired when I was listening last night. The title still says “Week in Politics: Romney At Bain, NAACP” and the description says “They discuss Romney defending his record at Bain Capital and the NAACP convention.” But there’s nothing at all in the clip (or the transcript) about the NAACP, and the section that is about Bain is not what I heard. There is, for example, no discussion of the allegation that Romney may have committed a felony by lying to the SEC (which Charen, echoing Romney’s campaign, professed to find absolutely disgusting — the Obama campaign’s accusation, that is, not the alleged deception on Romney’s part, which as I recall she did not address). And the segment that aired last night while I was listening ended with a brief exchange over the term “Obamacare” — Dionne said he felt Romney might have known better than to use that term when speaking to the NAACP, and Charen interrupted to protest that Obama uses it in his own ads. I was relieved that Block cut it off there.
The author of “No More Mister Nice Blog,” which I linked to above regarding Charen’s take on Romney’s “beautiful” NAACP address, not only heard the version I heard — he apparently found it on NPR’s site, before they changed it. So they did change it. That strikes me as bad journalistic practice, altering the record without acknowledging it. I don’t visit NPR.org that often, and when I do it isn’t usually to revisit something I heard on the air. So maybe you can tell me: is it standard for NPR to post entirely different versions of the segments they’ve aired without noting as much? Or was this a deviation from the usual practice, and if it was, why? There is only this fine-print disclaimer at the bottom:
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.
Agreed. But which audio? And am I supposed to be keeping the record?
UPDATE, 7/18: Here’s the response we got from NPR’s media-relations office:
NPR’s practice is very much like that of newspapers, where the final edition copy replaces the early edition version. In this case, after the first rollover (or feed) of the program, a series of network interviews about Romney’s tenure at Bain aired that spurred considerable media and public dialogue. All Things Considered recorded a new two-way conversation between Mona and E.J. to address that topic, which was ready for the third and final feed of the show. It is a usual practice for our newsmagazines to update stories and when possible conduct new interviews when stories change for inclusion in rollovers. It’s also our practice to post online the last, most current interview as of the time the program ends.
That explains where the second version came from. And it makes sense that they would “post online the last, most current interview as of the time the program ends.” But before they posted that version, they posted an earlier one, and then they changed it. When a newspaper significantly changes or updates the content of something posted online, doesn’t it typically also note that fact? (That’s what we do.) Since both versions of the segment aired, why not post both online? And if that’s not feasible, why not indicate that “this page has been updated with the most current version of the segment, which aired on the third and final feed of the show”? And if you want to feature only the most up-to-date version, shouldn’t you change the headline and description so that they don’t describe what used to be there? I don’t suspect anything sinister at work here, but if this is standard practice, I think it could use a little fine-tuning.