is suspicious of the White House’s early response to Benghazi. It seems that:
“On Friday, ABC News’s Jonathan Karl revealed the details of the editing process for the C.I.A.’s talking points about the attack, including the edits themselves and some of the reasons a State Department spokeswoman gave for requesting those edits. It’s striking to see the twelve different iterations that the talking points went through before they were released to Congress and to United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice, who used them in Sunday show appearances that became a central focus of Republicans’ criticism of the Administration’s public response to the attacks. Over the course of about twenty-four hours, the remarks evolved from something specific and fairly detailed into a bland, vague mush.”
Wow. Just the way television shows are made!
That was my first thought. My second was, only 12 iterations? Given the number of people who were probably giving notes, they’re lucky it was that few.
“The initial draft revealed by Karl mentions ‘at least five other attacks against foreign interests in Benghazi’ before the one in which four Americans were killed. That’s not in the final version. Nor is this: ‘[W]e do know that Islamic extremists with ties to al-Qa’ida participated in the attack.’ That was replaced by the more tepid ‘There are indications that extremists participated in the violent demonstrations.’"
I guess someone who writes for the New Yorker has little experience with the Darwinian pressure from multiple note-givers that ruthlessly levels out anything that might be eccentric, specific, or interesting. (Or in the case of talking points, anything that might let the Administration be tempted into making claims they were unsure of. As with scripted drama, it’s all about the audience.)
I’ve been fortunate to be on some shows that allowed for breathing room. But the flattening process happens, and when it does it’s often at the beginning of development, at the point where a pilot or the first few episodes are greenlit for shooting. This is why pilots I’ve read that really excite me will sometimes turn into processed TV food by the time they reach the screen. And it’s not even that the people giving the notes are stupid -- by and large these are intelligent, well-read, well-educated people of taste. No, it’s a matter of statistics.
Let’s say you have a scene in which your hero, though fairly standard in other ways, has some eccentricity; suppose, after parachuting out of a 747 and wrestling with the villain in mid-air, he recovers the missing Faberge egg, flirts with the love interest, and returns to his hotel that night, battered, proud, and (though he would never admit it) a little lonely. There he finds two men sitting at a piano in an empty auditorium, singing Cole Porter -- all that’s left of a wedding reception held earlier in the day. They stop in the middle of a bar and start arguing over the lyrics. The hero says, “No, no -- it’s ‘I love a prizefight that isn’t a fake!” And he sits down and starts to play, revealing an unexpectedly fine baritone. This is a guy who up till now you only imagined as a bit of an asshole.
Those are the moments in a script that are specific, unusual, character-revealing, and often not directly connected to plot. They are the first to go.
Your script begins its adventures at the production company, where two or three people read it and give you notes. Anything that is bland and generic will probably get through, because there’s nothing to object about; everyone has seen those scenes a million times, and we all understand them. But anything specific or odd or unusual or funny will (in the parlance of Hollywood) “bump” somebody.
I hate the bump. The bump means that they were turning pages, and everything was going smoothly, when they hit a rough patch – right here. Could you smooth that rough patch out, please?
And here is where we get to the statistical part. Let’s say there are maybe ten of these moments in your script. Ten things that are a little bit different. The script goes to the production company, where it’s read by three people. Person 1 bumped on two things. Person 2 was fine with the things that bothered Person 1, but has a different thing that bothered him. Person 3 bumped on one of Person 1’s bumps, but nothing else.
Everything that bothers anybody has to be changed or removed. Seriously. That’s the way it works, pretty much. What a lovely house! But could you take out that niche with the Spanish tiles, please? Just plaster it over with Navaho White, thanks… pat down that part there, no one will ever know.
So the script is revised and sent to the studio, with three of the less predictable moments gone. At the studio, four people read it. Person 1 has three bumps…
By the time the four readers at the studio have given you their notes, there are maybe three good moments left. The new script goes to the network, where six people read it…
Are you getting the picture? The script gets smoothed down, like a stone in a stream, till there’s nothing left anybody could possibly object to. And remember, nobody “bumps” on generic.
Should any moment of eccentricity make it through all that, the highly paid network star who picks it up might easily say, “This is really great, but that scene with the gay show tunes? I don’t think my fans want to see that. Mind cutting it? It’s just a little thing, doesn’t affect the plot.”
And the infuriating thing is, most of the people along the way are just doing their job. They’re supposed
to tell you when they have a problem with something. When I read other people’s material, sometimes I bump on things too. When we read a book, we may not like every single thing in that book; when we go to the movies, we argue with friends, coming out, about what we thought worked or didn’t work.
It’s the process
that kills. Twenty people reading the same thing, all with the power to edit. It’s not about a specific person’s taste; it’s about evolutionary pressure.
To get back to Koppelman:
“But the mere existence of the edits—whatever the motivation for them—seriously undermines the White House’s credibility on this issue. This past November (after Election Day), White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters that ‘The White House and the State Department have made clear that the single adjustment that was made to those talking points by either of those two institutions were changing the word “consulate” to “diplomatic facility” because “consulate” was inaccurate.’"
"Remarkably, Carney is sticking with that line even now…‘The only edit made by the White House or the State Department to those talking points generated by the C.I.A. was a change from referring to the facility that was attacked in Benghazi from “consulate,” because it was not a consulate, to “diplomatic post”… it was a matter of non-substantive factual correction. But there was a process leading up to that that involved inputs from a lot of agencies, as is always the case in a situation like this and is always appropriate.’”
Koppelman finds this highly suspicious. He seems to think human beings don’t behave this way unless they have some dark agenda.
In my world, I find it standard practice.