Hanging by the Telephone

Der Spiegel would have been happy to put this matter to rest

Last Monday, Der Spiegel editor Mathias Müller von Blumencron joined Bernhard Zand, the magazine’s Arabic-speaking middle east correspondent, in Baghdad. They’d scored a rare interview with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, which they planned on conducting together.

That same day, The New York Times ran an op-ed by Barack Obama reiterating his support for a sixteen-month timetable for the withdrawal of most U.S. troops from Iraq.

So on Tuesday, when the German journalists joined al-Maliki and a handful of aides for an interview pegged to the prime minister’s upcoming visit to their country, the op-ed was on people’s minds—even inside the locked-down Green Zone.

“It was very clear that [al-Maliki had] read it,” Müller von Blumencron told CJR. “It was kind of innocent how he came up with the sixteen-month thing. We didn’t ask him, he just brought it up.”

Innocent or not, the favorable mention of Obama’s plan drew their eye. ”We knew it could provoke some attention, but we had no idea how much attention,” says Müller von Blumencron.

It wasn’t until Saturday that Der Spiegel posted its interview with al-Maliki, which included this exchange:

SPIEGEL: Would you hazard a prediction as to when most of the US troops will finally leave Iraq?

Maliki: As soon as possible, as far as we’re concerned. U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama talks about 16 months. That, we think, would be the right timeframe for a withdrawal, with the possibility of slight changes.

And so were born the weekend’s headlines.

But things got complicated later on Saturday, when, after being contacted by American officials, Maliki spokesperson Ali al-Dabbagh (who was himself in the room for the Spiegel interview) issued a statement claiming that the prime minister’s statements to the magazine “have been misunderstood and mistranslated” without naming a specific mistranslation or misunderstanding.

And on Saturday and Sunday, while some news organizations, like CNN, reported the matter as a he-said-she-said, most outlets pointed out that the al-Dabbagh denial was remarkably vague and perfunctory. The discussion was haunted by the frustrating question of the statement’s accuracy; no one made a serious attempt to sort the truth out, to contact Der Spiegel to hear the tape for themselves, and to put the argument to rest.

Except the Times.

In a Monday story, the paper was first to report that the translator in the room had been Maliki’s, and giving its own self-described “direct” translation of the Obama quote.

“Obama’s remarks that — if he takes office — in 16 months he would withdraw the forces, we think that this period could increase or decrease a little, but that it could be suitable to end the presence of the forces in Iraq… Who wants to exit in a quicker way has a better assessment of the situation in Iraq.”

How come that version is so different from Der Spiegel’s version?

“His original words were unprintable. It would have been embarrassing to him. So we edited it,” says Müller von Blumencron. “There are very few people you can do a Q&A with without editing for grammar. And you always have to make it shorter.”

Quite true. As any journalist could tell you, if a printed interview transcript reads like a punchy exchange, with each sentence a complete thought and each paragraph well formed, odds are someone has done a lot of tweaking to help the direct transcription along. But extreme care must be taken not to distort the speaker’s original meaning.

The editor’s hand gives any claim of misrepresentation a little credence—especially if there’s translation involved too. During the interview, Der Spiegel spoke in English, and after listening to each question repeated in Arabic, and hearing Maliki’s responses in Arabic, finally heard its answer in English via Maliki’s translator. Through it all, Zand would have been able to monitor each step of the translation for any slip-ups.

Der Spiegel proudly stands by its work. (And rightly so—events have borne them out.) Their tape contains both Maliki’s original Arabic and the translator’s real-time English. When the magazine readied the transcript, Zand verified the translation against Maliki’s Arabic. On this sensitive interview, and the Obama portion of the interview, Müller von Blumencron emphasizes they stayed “very close. Very, very close.”

So how did the Times get its listen? Simple—it asked. According to Müller von Blumencron, Times reporter Sabrina Tavernise and her translator met with Zand in Baghdad, where he played them the relevant quote.

There’s something else that journalists calling Der Spiegel would have learned. “We have a policy at Der Spiegel when we do a question and answer session to provide a transcript to our counterparts in case they want to have a minor thing changed,” says Müller von Blumencron, who says Zand verified that Maliki’s aides received the publication-ready advance copy. They had no response, and presumably no complaints, before its release.

Der Spiegel has no plans to release the tape (“We don’t see a need to improve upon our credibility by, say, putting the audio on the web.”) but is happy to play it—in person, over the phone—for any journalist interested in verifying.

“Anyone who wants to hear it can hear it,” says Müller von Blumencron. “But no one else has asked.”

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Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.