The AP’s Non-Clarification Clarification

Chatterbox runs a “clarification” whenever he feels something he wrote isn’t quite wrong but warrants fuller explanation. (When it’s wrong, he runs a “correction.”) In theory, the “clarification” is an excellent vehicle for newspapers and magazines to explain things that the writer failed to explain very clearly the first time out. For example, in the June issue of Vanity Fair, two paragraphs in a profile of hedge fund manager and financial writer/editor James Cramer, describing what was either a psychotic episode or a terrifying case of victimization while Cramer was a reporter for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, are simply impossible to follow. Vanity Fair should run some sort of clarification. (If it doesn’t, Chatterbox invites Cramer or the Vanity Fair writer, Suzanna Andrews, to submit a clarification for publication here; Chatterbox has never met Cramer or Andrews.) Clarifications can and should be a force for good.

Alas, as usually practiced in newspapers and magazines, “clarification” is a weaselly genre aimed not at clarifying but at obfuscating. It arises, typically, when a source claims that a reporter misquoted him or her and the reporter denies it. If the truth can’t be teased out and it looks like the dispute might get messy–for example, if the source is threatening a lawsuit–the publication will often resolve the matter by running a completely impenetrable “clarification” that purports to make a concession or two but really doesn’t. Then both sides can claim victory and go home, leaving only the baffled reader in the lurch.

Case in point: An opaque “clarification” that the AP put on the wires this week. It said that a May 9 story “gave an incomplete account of one ACLU official’s position on school safety” in the wake of the Littleton killings. The item went on to explain that Eleanor Eisenberg, executive director of the ACLU in Arizona, had been quoted thusly: “Schools are saying that school safety comes first and students’ rights second. That’s wrong.” It then “clarified” that Eisenberg now says that “when she made the statement she was paraphrasing the following quotation from Benjamin Franklin: ‘They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.’ ” Finally, the item reported that Eisenberg “said denying civil liberties was not a solution to the problem of alienation and violence by young people. But she did not mean to suggest that the safety of children was less important than student rights.”

Chatterbox read this “clarification” five or six times, and only got more confused. Had Eisenberg been misquoted? The AP “clarification” didn’t say; it just said its earlier account was “incomplete.” The Ben Franklin quotation, far from altering the meaning of Eisenberg’s quote, seemed rather to leave it unchanged. Was Eisenberg insisting that AP publish this famous aphorism in order to show her controversial (but also brave and arguably quite sensible) statement had a fancy pedigree? Finally, if Eisenberg hadn’t been misquoted, how could she now claim she never meant that children’s safety was less important than student rights?

Determined to get to the bottom of all this, Chatterbox phoned Eisenberg. She said the quote in the original AP story was a “misquote. … That is not what I said.” When pressed about the AP clarification’s failure to concede that she’d been misquoted, however, Eisenberg said, “The dispute with AP is over. I think the clarification serves to convey what I really said. … I’m not interested in having a fight with AP, and I’m not interested in participating in a story about a dispute with AP.” Eisenberg said she had not threatened a lawsuit; she’d simply told the AP she’d been misquoted. What would the correct quote have been? “The paraphrase of Ben Franklin, that if we give up our civil liberties in the name of security, at the end of the day we’ll have neither civil liberties nor security.”

Chatterbox, his mind reeling with uncertainties and ambiguities, next phoned Amy Beth Graves, the AP reporter who wrote the original story. She declined to talk, but referred Chatterbox to her editor, Howard Goldberg, who had written the clarification. Goldberg said, “I think AP’s policies are to let our clarifications speak for themselves,” and referred Chatterbox to deputy managing editor Mike Silverman, who said the same thing. “I really don’t have anything more to say about it,” he added.

Does that clear everything up?