Beware of blind paraphrases

BEWARE OF BLIND PARAPHRASES….. It seemed as if the relevant players were finally on the same page. After widespread discussion of tactical differences between the White House and the Democratic Senate leadership, as of yesterday, everyone was marching to the same beat.

That is, until this morning, when NBC White House correspondent Chuck Todd stirred things up again.

According to Todd, the White House is telling Reid, “You’re the vote counter, but don’t come crying to us when you need that last vote. That said, I’ve also been told, OK right now it’s this ‘opt-out,’ the compromise could end up being the ‘opt-in’ and maybe this is what Reid was doing here — going with the ‘opt-out’ so the ‘opt-in’ was the compromise rather than the trigger being the compromise.” […]

[T]his is in direct contradiction to a). the White House’s official statement of support for what Reid’s doing, and b). Reid’s insistence that he’s doing what he thinks is right, and what can pass in the Senate.

New, unwelcome drama? Probably not. A couple of hours later, Todd told Greg Sargent that the White House hasn’t actually said this to Reid, and that his on-air remarks have been “twisted.” Todd said, “It was ‘as if’ they were sending that message…. Everything gets too literal.”

It’s a sensitive time in policy negotiations, and observers are on high alert. Reports like Todd’s can have meaningful implications. Instead of expecting viewers to know the difference between messages the White House “literally” delivered to Senate leadership and messages they kinda sorta obliquely delivered to Senate leadership, perhaps journalists should be more careful in characterizing what’s happening behind the scenes.

What’s more, it’s a reminder that blind paraphrases on television should be taken with a grain of salt. A couple of weeks ago, John Harwood reported that an “advisor” to the White House trashed “the Internet left fringe.” Top White House officials went on the record to reject the report, and Harwood later qualified his remarks a bit.

We can apparently take much of the on-air commentary and blind paraphrases seriously, or we can realize the reporting isn’t “too literal.”