It was a great assignment for any college journalist – or, for that matter, any reporter stuck at a desk who dreams of following a presidential campaign out on the trail: a trip to South Carolina to cover the Republican primary. And staffers from the Daily Pennsylvanian, a student newspaper at the prestigious University of Pennsylvania, took it on in earnest. They canvassed the University of South Carolina in Columbia to find out what students thought about the White House race. They wrote mini-profiles of people rallying for Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas. And they chronicled the attempts of Sen. Marco Rubio, Fla., to dodge an interview with them even though he was staying in the same hotel.
“We still managed to run into another presumed Rubio staffer or security guard before leaving,” editor-in-chief Lauren Feiner wrote. “He approached us brusquely, telling us we need to go. We told him we were guests of the hotel. ‘Oh, we weren’t sure,’ he told us, uncomfortably realizing he lacked the grounds to ask us to leave.”
But it was an encounter with the candidate himself that would prove most fateful. After seeing Rubio at what appeared to be a continental breakfast, staffer Ellie Schroeder filed a piece called “Marco Rubio has awkward confrontation with Rafael Cruz, Cruz staffer in hotel lobby.” The piece included a video of Rubio with subtitles that made it look like the candidate slighted the Bible.
“Got a good book there,” Rubio said to a Cruz staffer reading the Good Book, according to the subtitles.
“Yes, sir,” the staffer replied.
“Not many answers in it,” Rubio said before walking away. “Especially that one.”
The interaction was odd – to say the least – for a man who needs to court evangelicals and is not known for his atheistic bent. But the Daily Pennsylvanian pounced.
“[Staffer] Collins was visibly taken aback after being addressed by his boss’ political rival,” Schroeder wrote. “Rafael Cruz and Collins proceeded to discuss under [sic] the incident in hushed voices for several minutes.”
Strange. But the story may have ended there had the video, which was circulated on conservative news websites, not been shared by Rick Tyler, Cruz’s longtime campaign spokesman. Tyler apologized after it was revealed the video was incorrectly subtitled, and Rubio had really said: “All the answers are in there. Especially in that one.”
“I want to apologize to Senator Marco Rubio for posting an inaccurate story about him here earlier today,” Tyler wrote on Facebook. “The story showed a video of the Senator walking past a Ted Cruz staffer seated in the lobby of a hotel reading his Bible. The story misquoted a remark the Senator made to the staffer. I assumed wrongly that the story was correct. According to the Cruz staffer, the Senator made a friendly and appropriate remark. Since the audio was unclear, I should not have assumed the story was correct.”
The apology wasn’t enough. Cruz fired Tyler on Monday.
“Yesterday, a staffer from our campaign sent out a tweet that tweeted a news story that purported to indicate Marco saying something negative about the Bible,” the candidate said. “The news story was false. That staffer deleted the tweet, apologized, and pulled it down, although I’ve spent this morning investigating what happened. And this morning, I asked for Rick Tyler’s resignation.”
It was a bad moment for a big stumble. Nevada Republicans will caucus on Tuesday. After Cruz’s victory in Iowa, rival Donald Trump won New Hampshire and South Carolina. Now, Rubio and Cruz, who ran neck-and-neck in the Palmetto State, are looking for a breakout moment that can slow Trump’s building momentum towards securing the GOP nomination. As Rubio consolidates his support among establishment Republicans, will Cruz be able to make a last stand, even as his campaign is accused of “dirty tricks”?
Of course, all this wasn’t the burden of the Daily Pennsylvanian to bear. The Republican primary is not controlled by any media outlet, let alone one run by college students in Philadelphia. If Cruz is hitting below the belt, they are not making him.
Still, for the record: The Daily Pennsylvanian did put the wrong subtitles on the video that started the hubbub in the first place. There was some explaining to do. First, the paper was defiant.
“We have been receiving lots of questions about the contents of this video, and some have disagreed with our transcript,” an editor’s note on the piece posted early Monday read. “We stand by our original transcript, but the video is here for you to see for yourself and make your own judgement.”
But the note quickly evolved as the paper stripped the subtitles from the video.
“This article has been updated to remove a quote in the video by Marco Rubio that has been called into question, regarding the book the staffer was reading,” the story read by midday. “We have replaced the video with the raw footage without subtitles. Though our original transcription reflects what we originally heard, after reviewing the audio, we feel it is too unclear to say for sure.”
Editor-in-chief Feiner responded to questions from The Washington Post by email, pointing out the change.
“I am the Editor-in-Chief of The Daily Pennsylvanian, responding to your email to Ellie Schroeder this morning,” she wrote. “Just wanted to let you know we have updated the article with additional information at the top and replaced the subtitled video with a raw footage version. Here is the link . . . Thank you for reaching out!”
If this wasn’t enough, the paper also posted a timeline of events “in an effort to provide transparency,” Feiner said. The resulting post – much of it not directly related to the incorrect subtitles – looks more like a dissection of the John F. Kennedy assassination than the story behind a 21-second political video that went viral for all the wrong reasons. An example:
“Saturday, Feb. 20, 10:48 a.m.: Marco Rubio walks into our hotel, the Hampton Inn near the airport in Columbia, S.C. and exchanges some words with a guest sitting at the table closest to him. A Daily Pennsylvanian staffer records a video. At this point, we do not know the identity of the man with whom Rubio is talking or what book he is reading. We posted the raw video to Facebook and Twitter at this time.
“Saturday, Feb. 20, 11:02 a.m.: A @dailypenn Twitter follower tweets at us, letting us know that Rafael Cruz, Ted Cruz’s father, was in the video, sitting to the right of the person Rubio spoke to. We were previously unaware of this.”
Eventually, the timeline got around to the moment of truth:
“Saturday, Feb. 20, around noon: At the University of South Carolina, while editing the video, a Daily Pennsylvanian staffer notices something odd in the interaction between Rubio and the Cruz staffer. The staffer hears Rubio say “Good book you got there. Not many answers in it. Especially in that one.” The staffer shows the audio to other editors, who hear the same thing. The staffer creates a video with subtitles.
“Saturday, Feb. 20, 1:47 p.m.: Another Daily Pennsylvanian editor writes a post, detailing our interpretation of the video and the situation as we witnessed it. We publish the post with the video containing subtitles. ”
After removing the subtitles, however, the Daily Pennsylvanian continues to wait for comment from the Cruz staffer whom Rubio approached. Perhaps the paper thinks the staffer will go against Cruz – who, remember, just fired his campaign spokesman over the incident – and support the paper’s suspect interpretation of the video?
“We examine the video, breaking down the audio to the very syllable at the beginning of the sentence,” the timeline read. “We continued to believe we heard an ‘N’ sound.”
And why has the paper not posted a correction of what seems to be a flawed story? The world may never know – the Daily Pennsylvanian is done talking.
“I have nothing more to say at this time,” Feiner wrote in an email to The Post late Monday. “I will reach out if we have any further updates. Thank you for your understanding.”
(C) 2016, The Washington Post · Justin Wm. Moyer