Semantic antics

Andrew Sullivan seems to find further proof of the Vast Stalinist Conspiracy, or whatever it is he worries about, in two seemingly innocuous New York Times corrections.

The first:

A front-page news analysis article on Sunday about the political perils faced by President Bush over the war with Iraq misattributed a comment about Saddam Hussein’s government being “a house of cards.” While some American officials had used the phrase to predict a shorter conflict and a quick collapse of the Iraqi leadership, Vice President Dick Cheney was not among them.

To which Sullivan bizarrely responds, “Amazing. Another front page Big Lie from Raines and company.”

Don’t get me wrong — if the Times misattributed a quote, they certainly needed to run a retraction. But to call this a “Big Lie” may be overstating the situation just a wee bit (by which I mean to say is definitely overstating the situation by an insanely large degree — but I’ll get to that in a moment).

Cheney may not have said those exact words, but to pretend that this wasn’t the Administration’s message in the days leading up to the war is to attempt to rewrite recent history to one’s own liking. For instance, according to the “Capital Journal” column in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, Richard Perle speculated before the war began that the Iraqi regime would “collapse at the first whiff of gunpowder.” And according to that same column, Cheney forecast that the war would take “weeks, rather than months.”

In other words, he thought the Iraqi regime was a house of cards, even if he didn’t use those exact words. I mean, it’s exactly not as if the Times quoted him declaring his newfound adherence to godless communism and mind-expanding drugs. It was a misattribution, and they ran a correction — but it was not a misportrayal of his views.

And then there’s this one:

A front-page article on Tuesday about criticism voiced by American military officers in Iraq over war plans omitted two words from an earlier comment by Lt. Gen. William S. Wallace, commander of V Corps. General Wallace had said (with the omission indicated by uppercasing), “The enemy we’re fighting is A BIT different from the one we war-gamed against.”

Again, Sullivan seems to perceive bias at play, asking, “One simple question: why are the reporters who used that critical quote to exaggerate the difficulties of the allies still working for the NYT?”

As I say, of course it’s important for newspapers to quote sources accurately. (And anyone who’s ever been interviewed in any context can tell you how rarely that actually happens.) But in my experience, “a bit” is often used colloquially as a synonym for “rather” or “somewhat.” It doesn’t necessarily, or even often, signify “a small amount” — and in fact, generally is an understated way of suggesting the opposite. Maybe this is just an Americanism, to which our cousin from across the pond is tone deaf, I really don’t know. But, for instance, if I were to write that “Andrew Sullivan seems to have a bit of trouble differentiating between reality and ideological fantasy,” I would not be implying that he has minimal trouble making such a distinction. Now, unlike Sullivan, I’m willing to acknowledge up front that I have absolutely no idea what the General meant to say — clearly, it’s impossible to know without fuller context. He may well have intended to convey his belief that “The enemy we’re fighting is only marginally different from the one we war-gamed against.” Though if that were his intent, it seems more likely that he would have accentuated the positive rather than the negative, i.e., “this enemy is so similar as to be indistinguishable from the one we wargamed against!”

To be fair, “a bit” can imply a negligible difference or a small amount — as in, “I clearly have a bit of time to waste at the moment.” But it’s so frequently used to suggest the opposite that it seems, well, a bit of a stretch — by which I mean, it is utterly and absolutely ludicrous — to suggest that two reporters should lose their jobs over this.

At any rate, the whole thing makes me a bit tired.