Explore Harvard's Nieman network Nieman Fellowships Nieman Lab Nieman Reports Nieman Storyboard

The Wall St. Journal, Karl Rove, and true-but-false journalism

COMMENTARY | March 26, 2012

Karl Rove, no surprise, twisted a statement of Bill Clinton's so badly in a Wall Street Journal column that the paper issued ‘a clarification.’ But as Gil Cranberg points out, calling something a clarification doesn’t make it one.

By Gilbert Cranberg

It’s almost laughable how Karl Rove, in an op-ed in the March 22 Wall Street Journal, tears apart the Obama campaign for alleged misstatements in a campaign documentary while himself stretching the truth beyond recognition. In the column, Rove said Obama deserved no credit for getting rid of Osama Bin Laden because the president “did what any commander in chief would have done in the same situation… even Bill Clinton says that’s the call I would have made.”

Except, Clinton actually said, “When I saw what had happened, I thought to myself, ‘I hope that’s the call I would have made.’” Thus, Rove twisted Clinton’s meaning, spinning a statement of admiration for Obama into a negative for the president as well as into a boast by Clinton.

The Journal’s headline was, “'The Road We've Traveled' With Obama;” the subhead was, “Three dismal years are spun into 17 minutes of fact-challenged campaign film.” Talk about fact-challenged!

The Journal published a “clarification” in the March 24-25 weekend edition. The clarification: “In President Obama’s re-election documentary, Bill Clinton says, ‘I hope that’s the call I would have made.’ Karl Rove’s March 22 column did not include the words ‘I hope.’”

Anyone reading the clarification without context would have difficulty realizing  that Rove had essentially lied by the way he truncated Clinton’s quote. The sketchy clarification amounted to a cover-up of Rove’s campaign trickery. (Here is Rove’s column; the offensive quote, now corrected, is in the last paragraph of the text, with an unhelpful editor’s note below it.)

The incident is another example of work that I call true but false. The Journal’s clarification is true in every particular but false for what it omits and for its failure to show context.

Corrections and their close cousins, clarifications, are an important service to readers. The press was slow to emphasize them. Not until 1967 did the Louisville Courier- Journal and Times become the first newspapers in the United States to institutionalize corrections by establishing a standing corrections box and by announcing a corrections policy.

But calling something a correction or clarification does not make it one. Some are so cryptic you have to dig up the original story to understand what was in error.

The Journal’s clarification of Rove’s article is in that unworthy tradition. Instead of forthrightly stating that Rove’s falsified quote could mislead readers, readers had to draw that conclusion by untangling the so-called clarification on their own. In this instance, the Journal gave its readers the form of a correction/clarification but without the substance. How ironic that an innovation intended to enlighten readers should mislead them.


The NiemanWatchdog.org website is no longer being updated. Watchdog stories have a new home in Nieman Reports.