Earlier this week, I agreed with what James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, actually said about North Korea, before I criticized Clapper for saying it. Now, it’s the media’s turn. Media, if you’re reading this, most of you did an awful job reporting that story. Semantics are your business, so I’m going to get semantic here, starting with Clapper’s full quote, in context. All emphasis mine:
Q: You talked about the assessment of threat in North Korea. I’m curious if the community has ever been asked to assess what negotiations can do to suspend North Korean nuclear programs. If not, why not? And if so, if you could share with us any of that assessment.
CLAPPER: Well, I had my own brief foray into diplomacy with the North Koreans in November 2014, and it just proved to me I made the right decision not to try to be a diplomat. (Laughter.)
ROSE: Why was that?
CLAPPER: Well, in fact, it was The New York Times that wrote an article about why on earth would you send the DNI on a sensitive diplomatic mission like—where the purpose was to retrieve two of our citizens who were imprisoned under hard-labor conditions. And the diagnosis by The New York Times was gruff, blunt, a relic of the Cold War—ideal for North Korea. (Laughter.)
I would say, in answer to your question, I think the notion of getting the North Koreans to denuclearize is probably a lost cause. They are not going to do that. That is their ticket to survival. And I got a good taste of that when I was there about how the world looks from their vantage. And they are under siege and they are very paranoid. So the notion of giving up their nuclear capability, whatever it is, is a nonstarter with them.
I do think—
Q: Suspending the program.
CLAPPER: I do—I’m sorry?
CLAPPER: Well, the best we could probably hope for is some sort of a cap. But they’re not going to do that just because we ask them. (Laughter.) There’s going to have to be some significant inducements. What does bother me a bit is that we don’t capitalize on our great weapon, which is information. And that’s something they worry about a lot. And their reaction to the loudspeakers being activated along the DMZ or the dropping of leaflets by NGOs over North Korea, and they go nuts when that happens. And so that is a great vulnerability that I don’t think we have exploited. But right now we’re kind of stuck on our narrative, and they’re kind of stuck on theirs.
ROSE: So an Iranian kind of negotiation that would put a cap or suspend is not—your experience in diplomacy is that it’s not likely to happen.
CLAPPER: I don’t think so.
ROSE: And what about a kind of Stuxnet sabotage?
CLAPPER: What about it?
ROSE: Kind of sabotage of their facilities?
CLAPPER: Well, I’m not going to go into that. (Laughter.)
[James Clapper, Remarks at the Council on Foreign Relations, Oct. 25, 2016]
But the quote that nearly all readers saw was rendered thusly.
This is, so far, at least a reasonably faithful interpretation of Clapper’s out-of-context statement, because it preserves the critical word “get,” meaning “induce” or “persuade.” Clapper is really saying that Kim Jong-un would almost certainly not agree to disarm voluntarily. Hopefully, an extraordinarily careful reader will grasp that meaning.
But by losing the word “negotiations” from the question and “diplomacy” from the first part of the answer, this rendering loses essential context, and broadens the meaning to mean that all inducements are sure to fail. That is not what Clapper said. After conceding that Kim Jong-un won’t agree to give up or cap his nuclear weapons programs “just because we ask him,” Clapper then says that we’ve underutilized “our great weapon,” regime subversion through information. Almost every reporter missed this, with only a few exceptions:
It isn’t clear whether Clapper is referring to the use of information as a coercive inducement or a tool for overthrowing the regime, but what is clear is that Clapper does not believe denuclearization by means other than talks is “a lost cause.” But when the irresistible force of a salacious, bias-confirming quote meets the immovable object of a 140-character limit, the resulting collision disfigures the speaker’s words beyond recognition, and misinforms people who matter, because they vote, and because they make national policy:
By now, the meaning of Clapper’s words has broken free of its moorings and is now adrift in the heavy surf of a tweet storm. But in what sense does this have the same meaning as what Clapper said? It depends, I suppose, on your biases. If you see negotiations and agreed frameworks as the only way to stop Kim Jong-un from nuking up, there is no difference. But if that’s how you see the problem, you’re obviously new to this site, and what’s more, that bias puts you at odds with either much, most, or all of the entire United States Congress (which broadly reflects the sentiments of the American mainstream).
Of course, some of the reporters who have covered the North Korea story have revealed strong biases toward “engagement” and agreed frameworks (read: appeasement), so an accurate rendering of Clapper’s conclusion would do violence to their narratives. And so, the slow-motion collision just keeps twisting the metal and fiber of Clapper’s gaffe, beyond the point of recognition, a bit more with each retweet.
And we have now twisted the original quote into something with a very different meaning, and with dramatically broader and more worrisome policy implications than the original statement. North Korea is a nuclear power! Game over! Get used to it! A billion or so people now believe North Korea is irreversibly a nuclear power because sloppy journalists misquoted an unguarded and careless comment.
I’m sure plenty of reporters believe this to be true. If current trends continue, they’re right. I’m sure plenty of them will find smug validation in believing it. But 140 characters …. That’s no excuse. Reporters should know by now that 99.7% of readers are never going to read the story itself. For whatever reason, they’ve misquoted and distorted a statement with profound policy implications.
That has led us to a lot of tortured efforts at “cleanup” by a deservedly embarrassed administration.
A few of the sources that got the story at least partially right in the text of their stories still got it wrong in their headlines and tweets. Too often, the text becomes a disclaimer, while headlines and tweets propel the narrative. The masses believe everything reporters say, and they also disbelieve everything reporters say, because eventually, every newspaper reader reads a story where she has some superior personal knowledge of the facts, and she draws broad conclusions about the entire profession of journalism from the errors she spots.
My favorite example would have to be how The New York Times and every last reporter got the story wrong on North Korea sanctions for years — some of them still get it wrong — without bothering to read or investigate what the law really says. In that case, there were no exceptions to this collective failure — not one! — but with the Clapper story, some reporters did better than others. I empathize with those I’ve unjustly tarred with a broad brush; after all, lawyers have the same problem. But then, reporters do a lot more wailing that the public has no faith in them anymore. Is it any wonder why?
Now, obviously, the media isn’t wholly to blame for this woeful predicament. Clapper is to blame for going off message, straying outside his lane, and shooting his mouth off. The Obama administration — and its predecessors — are to blame for apathy, inattention, policy drift, a common failure to grasp the regime’s pathology, and opting for the easy choice of appeasement year after year. The South Koreans are to blame for thinking they could solve the problem by feeding the beast that may yet devour them. (Update: The blob is responsible for giving presidents decades of risibly awful advice, and yes, Congress is responsible for waiting until the 11th hour to overthrow a clueless President and State Department and seize the levers of policy.) And above all, the little gray men in Pyongyang are to blame for being homicidal assholes.
Still, media, would it kill you to take the trouble to get the story right, rather than trying to gently herd us as if you’re so many benevolent shepherds? If it’s too much for us to ask that you tell us the truth, it’s too much for you to ask that we trust you. You often speak of the critical role you play in democratic societies. My years of experience in government, in Congress, and supervising the litigation of cases in federal court have taught me that you’re a fourth branch of government — the one with the least accountability to the public, but with the most control over the other three. You see the importance of your responsibility. So stop failing us, because the consequences of your failure could not be more obvious.
(Update: Since we’re being semantic, I changed the post title after publication, to improve its accuracy.)