Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Speech, Official and Otherwise

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CEO Podium

For a minute, there was a little controversy brewing over the omission of a line in an official White House transcript.  In early June, the Obama White House was accused of omitting a statement from the official transcript about the Iran nuclear deal that was made by Press Secretary Josh Earnest.  But this is not the first time the official version of something has conflicted with the recorded version that was caught by the news media.  It also happened in 2005, when Congressional Quarterly and the Federal News Service said White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said something that McClellan said he didn’t.  In that case too, the recordings didn’t match the White House transcript.  And of course, the White House isn’t wrong, because its transcript is “official”.

These incidents ask a very interesting question; whom and what should be believed?

When an “official” presents an “official” statement, the idea is this is the “official” stance of his or her bosses all the way to the top.  It shouldn’t change since everyone downstream is expected to be in philosophical agreement.  And when that official statement comes from the White House, you’d think it’s golden since there aren’t a lot of people between the President’s press secretary and the President.

So when there is a difference of interpretation between who is saying so, it can throw the whole credibility thing into question.  In fact, just because someone is in an “official” position doesn’t necessarily mean they are telling the truth.  Upon leaving, many high ranking and respected authorities voice very different positions to those they held while they were still employed by those officials.

The most glaring example I can think of was the retirement of former Defense Secretary Robert Gates.  He served two presidents of two parties, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama.  And when he started talking, from between the pages of his book, about failures of leadership in the execution of the Iraq war, higher ups in the current and former administrations backed away and not, I suspect, because he wasn’t credible.  To his credit, retired Marine Corps Commandant General James Amos, retired Army First Infantry Brigade Commanding General John Batiste and more than 20 other retired officers also openly criticized the policies of the decade long conflict.

But the point isn’t the formers officers speaking out, or that the policy was worthy of being spoken out against or even that the generals were retired and outside the reach of their former bosses.  The point was that those were the people who best knew policy and politics, tactics, strategy, manpower and budget.  And yet, they lost their war because they identified the wrong enemy.  They weren’t disputing that military power must be subordinate to civil power.  But they were disputing civil power’s credibility to define reality.

Officials may haul out reams of numbers and reports to explain to a questioning public that something which seems simple, isn’t or something that was said, wasn’t.  It is, in part, the paternalism that pervades organizations with historically complex missions.  “We are the expert.  Look over here, not over there.  Sit back, be quiet and listen to Daddy.”  But one of the key functions of the best people deep within in those organizations is to take the complex and make it simple for those on the inside, because they like straight lines too.

The people who know an organization best may be the people inside it.  But it may also be the people who are willing to speak truth about it.  And those two aren’t always the same.

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