Don't Shoot the Messenger

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

"PEOPLE IN Washington are morally repugnant, cheating, shifty human beings." That's what Karl Zinsmeister, President Bush's new domestic policy adviser, said -- or, more precisely, was reported to have said -- in an August 2004 article by the Syracuse New Times. Mr. Zinsmeister, then the editor of the American Enterprise Institute's monthly magazine, posted a less inflammatory version of this article on his magazine's own Web site -- without any indication that he himself had altered the story. Those who read the Zinsmeistered version of the New Times story saw this quote instead: "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.' "

That wasn't the only doctored quote. The Syracuse weekly quoted Mr. Zinsmeister as saying of the war in Iraq, "To say nothing of whether it was executed well or not, but it's brave and admirable." The altered copy deleted any hint of presidential criticism, saying only, "It's a brave and admirable attempt to improve the world."

Almost anyone who's been the subject of a profile has wished he or she could take back some words, maybe tweak them a bit. No one else that we know of -- certainly no one who's about to become the president's chief adviser on domestic policy -- has had the gall to simply make those changes unilaterally.

Mr. Zinsmeister told The Post's Zachary A. Goldfarb that his actions were "foolish." White House press secretary Tony Snow said Mr. Zinsmeister wanted "to set the record straight" but did so in an "unartful" way. Other terms -- perhaps even some of Mr. Zinsmeister's own adjectives -- come to our mind.

Mr. Zinsmeister says that the quotes were garbled because the interview was conducted in a noisy restaurant. He explains his failure to complain to the newspaper as an act of kindness to avoid getting a young journalist in trouble. But in an effusive e-mail he thanked the reporter, Justin Park, for "an extremely fair and thoughtful treatment" and praised his "professionalism and kindness," according to the New York Sun. If Mr. Zinsmeister had a quibble with a quote, why didn't he mention it?

As telling as Mr. Zinsmeister's rewriting was the White House's initial reaction: "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, told the Sun's Josh Gerstein.

Imagine how convenient it would be for the administration if it could do this with all reporting.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company