The Mystery of the Missing “That”

Just because, on balance, I spend more time defending Fox News against half-witted broadsides by those whose analysis of the network does not appear to extend much beyond regurgitating catchphrases picked right off the Fox-bashing grapevine—i.e., who have fallen for the very type of propaganda they profess to denounce (“The Fox News Paradox“)—than I spend joining in the criticism myself, does not mean that nothing which emanates from “the most powerful name in news” ever gives me pause.

Case in point, during a news conference on Monday, President Obama said this regarding the specter of “Obamacare” being struck down by the Supreme Court in Department of Health and Human Services v. Florida:

Ultimately, I’m confident that the Supreme Court will not take what would be an unprecedented extraordinary step of overturning a law that was passed by a strong majority of a democratically elected Congress. And I’d just remind conservative commentators that for years what we’ve heard is the biggest problem on the bench was judicial activism or a lack of judicial restraint, that an unelected group of people would somehow overturn a duly constituted and passed law.

Sure, one could quibble about whether a majority of 279 affirmative votes out of a total of 530 really qualifies as a “strong majority” as opposed to a “narrow squeak.” And—given that since Marbury v. Madison, the number of duly passed federal laws overturned, either in whole or in part, by the Supreme Court hovers around 160 and counting—heaven knows what the former constitutional law professor meant by “unprecedented” and “extraordinary.” (Besides, after actively agitating in favor of and then signing into law such a, well, unprecedented and extraordinary piece of legislation as the Affordable Care Act, frowning at the prospect of another branch of government doing unprecedented and extraordinary things seems quite an unprecedented and extraordinary instance of the POTUS calling the kettle black, pardon the pun.)

But a funny thing happened to these presidential remarks on the way to Fox News, specifically to Bret Baier’s Special Report.

We all know that in order to provide fleet-footed programming so as to guard against overtaxing modern audiences’ ephemeral attention spans, editing soundbites for length is quite common in commercial television. Out of a statement of 30 seconds or more, originally delivered in a continuous manner, we’re used to being shown a sentence here and two sentences there, probably out of sequence and intercut with all manner of other information, commentary, charts, and snazzy sound effects, with the result that most news segments these days look and feel like HD versions of a typical Peter Gabriel video clip from the 1980s—remember Sledgehammer?

That said, going to the trouble of excising one paltry “that” from the middle of a sentence seems a trifle excessive even by 21st-century infotainment streamlining standards. Although, strictly speaking, it was a “that … uh,” not merely a plain “that,” that wound up on Fox’s cutting room floor, such an instance of micro-pruning can hardly be justified as “editing for time.” News networks may be under perpetual pressure to keep things moving along at a brisk clip, but no one can be in so much of a hurry as to be killing simple conjunctions for the mere sake of alacrity.

Recall that President Obama had said this:

And I’d just remind conservative commentators that for years what we’ve heard is the biggest problem on the bench was judicial activism or a lack of judicial restraint, that an unelected group of people would somehow overturn a duly constituted and passed law.

The “that” after the word “restraint,” linking the following clause to the preceding point, signifies that, rather than Mr Obama himself ragging on Supreme Court justices for being unelected, he was taking a dig at conservative commentators for having done so on previous occasions, namely whenever legislation favored by the right was struck down by this “unelected” panel of nine.

So rather than himself knocking the members of the Supreme Court for being unelected, the president simply reminded conservatives that should Obamacare be overturned, they had better refrain from abruptly modifying their own previous characterization of the Court’s members from “unelected” to “fair, independent, and brilliant.”

In this edited Fox News version of Mr Obama’s comments, however—you can watch it here at the top left of the page, starting at time 1:16—his sentence abruptly cuts off after “restraint,” and the sound immediately picks up at “an unelected group of people…” as if this were a new thought unrelated to what came before, like this:

And I’d just remind conservative commentators that for years what we’ve heard is the biggest problem on the bench was judicial activism or a lack of judicial restraint. [CUT] An unelected group of people would somehow overturn a duly constituted and passed law.

One quite clearly notices the cut, and even in the absence of an audible pause it is obvious that something is missing after “restraint.”

Subconsciously, when we can hear that a cut has been made, we expect that more than just one little conjunction has intervened (otherwise, why bother making a cut in the first place?), probably more like at least a whole sentence, or even several sentences or paragraphs. Enough, in this case, to obtain the misleading impression that the president had reminded conservative commentators of their own condemnations of judicial activism, then made some other point, and then taken a personal swipe at Supreme Court justices for being “unelected.”

The sudden visual change from footage of the president speaking at his news conference to footage of the Supreme Court building right after the word “restraint” underscores the deceptive impression that two separate thoughts were expressed.

In fact, the only way to accuse Obama of having attacked the Supreme Court for being “unelected”—consider recent headlines such as “Republicans slam Obama over warning to ‘unelected’ Supreme Court” or “Obama Accuses Supreme Court of Judicial Activism”—is to view his “unelected” comment as entirely distinct from his preceding admonition directed at conservatives for having disparaged Court decisions in the past on account of its members having been unelected.

Am I’m making too big a deal out one missing conjunction?

Well, it is precisely the subtlety of this cut twinned with its seemingly deliberate and pre-meditated execution that worries me.

Fact is, the “that” didn’t just vanish by itself. Some director or producer at Fox News must have instructed an editor to kill the “that … uh”—a time saving of all but two seconds, which can’t possibly have warranted the trouble of performing the surgery—, then splice the now split sentence back together and change the visual at the exact moment of the splice.

It just seems like a heck of a lot of extra effort compared to simply leaving the sentence intact as it was spoken—why cut it in half and ditch one word in the middle?

Other than for the purpose of ginning up some justification for attacking the president over something he hadn’t quite said the way it was presented, can you think of an alternative theory as to why the “that” may have gone MIA? Could this have been just an innocent and inadvertent technical gaffe?

You could argue that if Fox’s intent had indeed been to sell the president’s sentence as two distinct thoughts unrelated to one another, why not simply cut the sentence in half, as they did, and then air the two halves separately, i.e., with some other commentary inserted in between, rather than play it in one truncated chunk?

Frankly, I’m a bit puzzled by this missing “that.”

  • Richard

    Yup.  It was wrong to edit, particularly in this way, even if the President’s view, though tacit, is still intact.

    I am more concerned about the insertion of a comma in the transcript. I didn’t hear it in the original and it makes the whole excerpt even more incomprehensible to me.

    Is the import “Conservatives better keep their mouths shut. I remember them complaining  that  the Supreme Court overturned the decision of a democratically elected legislature” or “Conservatives are amazed that despite the Constitution, orders of a group of unelected people (members of the Supreme Court or not) have effect”?

    Could the “that” be a reflexive pronoun referring to “judicial restraint”? The insertion of a comma suggests as much and is the real culprit here.

    Will a group of unelected professors somehow overturn the decisions of a duly constituted Supreme Court? It gets more exciting by the hour. The lack of  proper health cover for millions of people is a mere incidental.

    • Cyberquill

      The “that” sounds like a reflexive pronoun referring to the “lack” in “lack of judicial restraint.” After all, it isn’t judicial restraint that’ll cause 
      an unelected group of people to overturn a duly constituted and passed law but the lack thereof. 

      But methinks I clearly hear the comma in the president’s remarks, indicating an unspoken “and,” with the spoken “that” picking back up from the word “heard” earlier in the sentence, even though the following clause merely paraphrases the thought expressed right before: 

       And I’d just remind conservative commentators that for years what we’ve heard is the biggest problem on the bench was judicial activism or a lack of judicial restraint, [and we’ve heard] that an unelected group of people would somehow overturn a duly constituted and passed law.  

  • Richard

    Shouldn’t the second double inverted comma be single and the post terminate in a double inverted comma followed by a single inverted comma followed by a double inverted comma?

    Or do these nested quotes continue into the next post -- a literary the other person has cleared moment?

    • Cyberquill

      You shouldn’t assume my replying to a comment here signifies that I understand the point the commenter is making.

  • Richard

    Other interests and concerns may have prevented you from applying  at least some of the effort in reading and correcting my comment as I expended writing the same. Your superior understanding, as testified by you in reply to another recent comment of mine, is, after all, known to all.

    You have solved many cases by your powers of deduction, which I am in the course of writing about so that the world may know of your many achievements, not the least of which concerns  the mystery of the missing that, which perplexed those of lesser intellect and capacity for observation. I humbly implore you, my friend, to lay aside your guitar, call upon your vast resources and answer the question of the nested quotes. I do realise of course, that there are many demands for your time upon matters of great importance and I shall not be in the least offended if you decline.

    • Cyberquill

      Forgive my initial unfamiliarity with the term “inverted comma.” Upon diverting my attention away from some matters of great importance—to wit, staring out the window and trying to figure out whether to have breakfast now or later—in order to re-read your comment, apply some effort at understanding it, and call upon my vast resources (Wikipedia), my superior “powers of deduction”—by way of eliminating everything you could not have referred to, leaving me with the one thing you must have referred to—lead me to the conclusion that you were referring to the bold red opening quotation marks I use to indicate a block of quoted material and the absence of closing quotes to properly signify its conclusion. 

      As the coder in chief of this little website, I am, of course, acutely mindful the potential for havoc a single missing quotation mark can wreak, up to and including the entire site not loading at all. 

      Given the much lesser potential for catastrophe when it comes to omitting punctuation in the text on display to the general public, I thought I’d get away with indentation and font change to adequately indicate beginning and end of a blockquote, and keeping my big red opening quotation mark there for aesthetics rather than functionality.

      Truth is, I had indeed planned to include a pair of matching closing quotes. Sadly, I had to realize that my superior intellect did not extend to figuring out how to align them with the right border (just as I had managed to get my opening quotes to align with the left). 

      In other words, my closing quotes would show up all over the place, and none of my subsequent code corrections succeeded at placing those wayward quotes in their intended location, whereupon I decided to junk ’em altogether. 

      In my defense, I’ve seen other blogs whose blockquotes have large opening quotes but no closing quotes, which leads me to conclude that the design difficulty I had encountered when attempting to place my closing quotes is a common one. 

      On a related note, closing quotes just look like superscripted commas to me. Inversion, it seems, only occurs in opening quotes.  While the visual likeness of quotes and commas may only be present in some fonts but not in others, and all arguments regarding impeccable nesting aside, I see no reason why any text should ever terminate in (a) single or double inverted comma(s).

      • Richard

        Another remarkable investigation and solution from my friend Cyberquill Holmes. I can only reflect and marvel. I look forward with eager anticipation to his next case and can only hope that he may call upon me to accompany him and provide such minor assistance of which I may be capable.

        • Cyberquill

          First I shall call upon Ms East to prepare me some tea. 

          Ms Hudson, I mean. 

          Jeremy Brett was the best. All episodes are posted on YouTube, by the way. Brilliant series.