By Zachary A. Goldfarb
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, May 30, 2006
Karl Zinsmeister, President Bush's new domestic policy adviser, acknowledged he did something wrong when he took a newspaper profile of himself, altered quotes and text, and then posted it on a Web site without noting the changes.
"Looking back, this is foolish," he said in a telephone interview Friday evening. Zinsmeister said he did it to correct the record while protecting a young journalist who had made mistakes.
This admission came about because on Friday morning the New York Sun's Josh Gerstein disclosed that shortly after the weekly Syracuse New Times published a profile of Zinsmeister in August 2004, Zinsmeister posted an altered copy of the profile on the Web site of the American Enterprise Institute's magazine, which he edits.
The Syracuse paper had requested to interview Zinsmeister, who lives near Syracuse, because of his writings about the Iraq war. The article quoted him saying critical things about ordinary Iraqis, Washington elites and upper-class parents. It also contained a quote questioning the Bush administration's execution of the war.
In one example, the original article attributed to Zinsmeister this quote: "People in Washington are morally repugnant, cheating, shifty human beings."
But, on the institute site, it appeared as: "I learned in Washington that there is an 'overclass' in this country stocked with cheating, shifty human beings that's just as morally repugnant as our 'underclass.' "
Zinsmeister explained the change to The Washington Post by saying he has long studied issues of class and morality and he was confident he would have used the kind of specific language in the quote on the institute site rather than the more broad description in the original article.
In other examples, he said he made changes to fix errors he believed the New Times reporter had made because of misunderstandings or truncated notes -- taken in an interview in a noisy restaurant.
Even so, Zinsmeister acknowledged, "I should have contacted the New Times to say that there were four errors in the story and they should be retracted and corrected. . . . At the time it seemed innocent."
White House press secretary Tony Snow said Friday that Zinsmeister erred in making the changes, but he was well-intentioned: "This was done not out of animosity; it was an attempt to set the record straight and he did it in an unartful way."
All of this was a surprise to the New Times reporter, Justin Park, especially because, as he told the Sun, he had received a laudatory e-mail from Zinsmeister after the profile was published.
But Zinsmeister said he avoided asking for corrections at the time because "I think I would have gotten Justin in worse trouble if I moaned about it."
He said he expects people to dig through his vast writings as he prepares to start his White House job in mid-June. "There's so much insincerity in the political discourse. I write very bluntly and I know that, and the president knew that when he picked me. That's somewhat of the bond between us," he said. "I don't have trepidation or worry that there's a huge skeleton in my closet."