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I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

New Bush appointee caught changing and distorting his own quotes

Several days ago, the Bush administration announced that Karl Zinsmeister, the long-time Editor of the right-wing American Enterprise magazine, would become its new Domestic Policy Advisor. The appointment was celebrated by self-proclaimed personal friends of Zinsmeister such as Scott Johnson at Powerline and Jonah Goldberg, both of whom lauded his great intellect and integrity.

But an exposè today in The New York Sun documents rather compellingly that integrity does not exactly appear to be one of Zinsmeister's strong suits. In 2004, The Syracuse New Times published a profile and interview with Zinsmeister which contained some rather controversial and provocative quotes, as well as some disrespectful and critical quotes about the Commander-in-Chief. But when Zinsmeister re-published the New Times profile on the American Enterprise website, he fundamentally changed the controversial quotations in order to make it appear that he never said them. According to the Sun:

A magazine editor named to a top White House policy post, Karl Zinsmeister, altered his own quotes and other text in a published newspaper profile of him posted on the Web site of the magazine he has edited for more than a decade, the American Enterprise.

When Zinsmeister re-published the New Times profile on his website, he did nothing to indicate that he had changed the quotes and content. To the contrary, he misled his readers into believing that he was posting the original article:

The version of the story posted by the American Enterprise runs under Mr. Park's byline and states that it was published in the Syracuse New Times.

The editor of the original article, Molly English, pointed out the obvious:

She said it was unethical for Mr. Zinsmeister to post an altered version of the story without permission. "It's reprehensible, frankly," Ms. English said. "Once this is published, it's not his property. From that point in time, he can't just pick and choose."

All of the multiple examples of changed quotations cited in the Sun article make clear that Zinsmeister knew that his quotes would be politically damaging and so he wanted to alter them in order to reflect better on him. As but one example, Zinsmeister changed what he said that was critical of President Bush to instead make it appear reverent:

Mr. Zinsmeister, who has written three books based on his reporting trips to Iraq, also removed or reworded quotes that could be viewed as critical of the Bush administration or inflammatory to some in the Middle East.

The original article quoted Mr. Zinsmeister as saying, "[Bush] said, 'I'm gonna do something for history.' To say nothing of whether it was executed well or not, but it's brave and admirable. It got depressing to have to be [in the Middle East] every couple years like cicadas."

The version posted by the American Enterprise omits the suggestion that the war was poorly run, drops the insect metaphor, and substitutes nobler language. "[Bush] said, 'I'm gonna do something for history.' It's a brave and admirable attempt to improve the world," the second version said.

As another example: "Mr. Park also quoted the magazine editor as saying, 'I can't think of one Iraqi I met that I'm confident never lied to me.' Mr. Zinsmeister's version said he passed on the comment from 'one officer who'd been in Iraq for a full year.'" So, afraid of taking responsibility for what he said about the propensity for Iraqis to lie, Zinsmeister altered the article to make it seem like he was simply repeating what someone else had told him.

Much, much worse than these alterations -- and they are bad enough -- Zinsmeister caused a White House spokesperson to simply lie about why Zinsmeister made the changes:

In response to queries from The New York Sun yesterday, the White House said all of the changes were to correct errors in the August 2004 article, which was written by Justin Park and published in a weekly newspaper, the Syracuse New Times.

"These were corrections that were made due to misattributions or misunderstandings by the reporter that were cleaned up when they were reposted," a White House spokeswoman, Jeanie Mamo, said.

The claim that Zinsmeister was simply correcting misquotes is ludicrous on its face, since he never once claimed to the reporter or editor that he was misquoted in any way, let alone repeatedly misquoted in fundamental ways. To the contrary, after the story was published, he went out of his way to lavishly praise the reporter and the newspaper for the quality of the profile:

The New Times reporter, Mr. Park, said last night that he was "fairly certain" that he taped the interview with Mr. Zinsmeister, which the journalist said took place at a noisy restaurant. Mr. Park also said he was taken aback by the White House claim of inaccuracies, since Mr. Zinsmeister sent an effusive e-mail soon after the article appeared.

"I just read your story on line, and wanted to thank you for an extremely fair and thoughtful treatment," Mr. Zinsmeister wrote in an August 18, 2004, message provided to the Sun by Mr. Park.

Mr. Zinsmeister, an avowed conservative and staunch proponent of the war in Iraq, also expressed surprise at Mr. Park's approach, since the New Times is a left-leaning publication. "I really appreciate your professionalism and kindness. You wrote it straight up, which is the best and hardest kind of journalism. Let me know when I can next help out your journalism," the editor wrote.

"I'm sure he would have said something if he felt misquoted at the time," Mr. Park said yesterday.

Is there anything less credible in the world than Zinsmeister's claim - made through the White House spokesperson - that he altered these potentially embarrassing quotes because he was repeatedly misquoted, given that he not only never claimed he was misquoted, but sent e-mails praising the outstanding journalism evinced by the story? Nobody who was misquoted in such fundamental and unfair ways would thereafter send e-mails specifically praising the "professionalism" of the reporters and lauding the "fair and thoughtful treatment" they were given, let alone call the article "the best and hardest kind of journalism." All of that is self-evident.

Zinsmeister clearly changed his own quotes because he thought they reflected poorly on him, an incredibly unethical thing to do, especially since he misled people into believing that he was quoting the article itself. Now, when caught, he refuses to take responsibility for what he did, but instead begins offering up patently false explanations for why he did it, even going so far as trying to heap the blame on the supposedly sloppy and/or unethical practices of the reporter and editor who were responsible for the story -- all in order to save himself.

This kind of reprehensible behavior would completely disqualify Zinsmeister from working with any reputable organization which cared about honesty, integrity and truthfulness. That's the good news for him; his new job is clearly not in jeopardy with the Bush administration. He's probably already in line for a promotion.

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