Foul: Misquotes and context

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Modern deepfakes use artificial intelligence to create counterfeit videos of people saying things they didn’t. They make simple misquotes and quotes out of context seem mild, even primitive, in comparison.

But opponents and media still like them. Quotes are easy to abuse and rarely fact-checked against transcripts and video.

Here are two examples, one from former President Donald Trump and one from current Vice President Kamala Harris.

Trapping Trump

On April 23, 2020, the Coronavirus Task Force delivered one of its series of daily briefings. Many media ignored these because Trump wanted to be the center of attention.

William Bryan, acting Homeland Security under secretary for Science and Technology, presented the latest coronavirus research. The findings: The virus quickly succumbs when exposed to disinfectants and light, particularly ultraviolet rays.

That should have been the news of the day. Reporters could have quoted the scientists, as they did for most of these briefings. Instead, they focused on this awkward handoff between Bryan and Trump. (1:21 minutes.)

Trump showed a layman’s optimism that the doctors might use that information to develop treatments. But the media heard, and told the public, that the president was telling people to ingest household cleansers.

Harassing Harris

When Harris appeared December 26, 2021 on “Face the Nation” on CBS, interviewer Margaret Brennan asked: “What do you see is the biggest national security challenge confronting the U.S.? What is the thing that worries you and keeps you up at night?”

Frankly, one of them is our democracy. And that I can talk about because that’s not classified. It really does. I-I- there is I think no question in the minds of people who are foreign policy experts that the year 2021 is not the year 2000. You know, I think there’s so much about foreign and domestic policy that, for example, was guided and prioritized based on Sept 11, 2001. And we are embarking on a- a new era where the threats to our nation take many forms, including the threat of autocracies taking over and having outsized influence around the world. And so I go back to our- our point about the need to fight for the integrity of our democracy. In addition, it is obviously about what we need to do in the climate crisis. …

Vice President Kamala Harris, CBS “Face the Nation,” December 26, 2021

That’s a talker, all right. But it’s not entirely true.

Check the transcript and video

What’s missing here is context. Harris had just spent a long section of the interview affirming her support for voter rights. With Build Back Better and two federal voter rights acts stalled in the Senate, Harris tried to steer the conversation back to voter rights and climate change.

Eventually, Brennan did get the vice president to discuss international security—Afghanistan, Russia, China and the like. But in the context of the interview, the VP’s initial response about “autocracies taking over” and in the next sentence “the need to fight for the integrity of our democracy” sounds like she’s more concerned about domestic rather than international autocracies.

As the member of the executive branch whose job it is to break tie votes in the Senate, she is well aware of domestic autocracy.

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