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Transcribers' agony: Frustrated not by what Trump says but how he says it

Donald Trump talks with journalists during a rally against the Iran nuclear deal, West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol, September 9, 2015.
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Donald Trump talks with journalists during a rally against the Iran nuclear deal, West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol, September 9, 2015.

Few conventions in political campaign coverage are as straightforward and unassailable as quoting a public figure verbatim. After all, how can there be any doubt when you are putting down the exact words someone says?

And yet, as with many other parameters of the process, Donald Trump has complicated this, too.

The rhetorical challenges of Trump are not just those of substance — or the lack thereof, but of syntax — and the lack thereof.

His unscripted speaking style, with its spasmodic, self-interrupting sentence structure, has increasingly come to overwhelm the human brains and tape recorders attempting to quote him.

Trump is, simply put, a transcriptionist's worst nightmare: severely unintelligible, and yet, incredibly important to understand.

Given how dramatically recent polls have turned on his controversial public utterances, it is not hyperbolic to say that the very fate of the nation, indeed human civilization, appears destined to come down to one man's application of the English language — and the public's comprehension of it. It has turned the rote job of transcribing into a high-stakes calling.

You wonder what is going on

Say nothing of the greater struggle journalists have pinning him down on what he means: The first big test is getting the source material right.

"Almost every time we have done a transcript of him there is something in there that makes you wonder what is going on," said Elizabeth Pennell, president of ASC Services, which produces verbatim political transcripts for Congressional Quarterly and many of the news networks (but not CNBC).

Trump's menace to semantics exemplified in the initial dust-up of his "Second Amendment people" comments last week, when he seemed to suggest gun-rights supporters may want to assassinate Hillary Clinton to prevent her judicial appointments. Even before the media attempted to measure how out-of-bounds this latest inflammatory remark was — and before Trump eventually claimed it to be "sarcastic" — the question was where to put the periods and commas in a quote that defied both campaign and grammar norms. Because that can matter.

"Trump is a very sloppy speaker," said Pennell. "He is very hard to transcribe and because what he says can be such a bombshell and so badly parsed by the consuming public and the media, you just got to take so much more care. Because everybody out there is literally hanging on every word he says in a way I have never seen happen before in a race."

Trump's crimes against clarity are multifarious: He often speaks in long, run-on sentences, with frequent asides. He pauses after subordinate clauses. He frequently quotes people saying things that aren't actual quotes. And he repeats words and phrases, sometimes with slight variations, in the same sentence.

To untangle the jumble, his stenographers are increasingly reliant on a punctuation known as the "em dash" (—), which are used to separate parentheticals within the same sentence. Philip Rucker, The Washington Post's national political correspondent, said that among reporters covering Trump, he has become known as the "em-dash candidate."

For comparison, Pennell provided CNBC.com transcripts her company did for speeches Trump and Clinton delivered last Wednesday. Trump's remarks to a crowd in Abingdon, Virginia, produced 9,345 words and 157 em dashes. Clinton's transcript from a campaign rally in Des Moines, Iowa, clocked in at a much shorter 2,251 words, with only eight em dashes.

However, unlike with the words themselves, punctuation is often a matter of interpretation: Is a certain pause conveyed best by a comma or a dash?

The New York Times and The Washington Post used em dashes in quoting Trump's Second Amendment comment, but in different places; The Associated Press stuck with commas.

In any case, everyone is spending a lot more time listening to tapes.

Pennell estimates it takes her transcriptionists twice as long to transcribe a Trump speech as it does for Clinton — and additional safeguards have been in place for the GOP nominee.

"Basically, you can't do Trump in real time," said Pennell. "Trump is a team approach … with a secondary editor acting as secondary review point, and there is a lot that can be lost in the mix."

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump addresses the audience during a campaign event at Trask Coliseum on August 9, 2016 in Wilmington, North Carolina.
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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump addresses the audience during a campaign event at Trask Coliseum on August 9, 2016 in Wilmington, North Carolina.

Rucker, who conducted a 50-minute interview with Trump earlier this month, said journalists following the GOP nominee have been forced to pay attention to every word he is saying when he speaks. In 2012, when Rucker was covering Mitt Romney's campaign, he said, "you could sit through the rallies and something he said was something you already heard before and you didn't have to keep up with it so carefully."

That's journalistic malpractice with Trump, who routinely creates headlines with his parenthetical asides — and subsequently quibbles with the quotes or the paraphrases that result.

This dynamic has prompted mainstream news outlets — particularly print— to publish transcripts of Trump interviews in conjunction with their interviews. The New York Times, which twice interviewed Trump this year on foreign policy, published "edited" transcripts of each, but did not release the tape recording of the interview. (Times spokesperson Eileen Murphy told CNBC.com: "We only edited out 'off the record' comments and it was never a consideration to post the audio." She declined to explain why.)

Earlier this month, in a podcast interview with former CBS anchor Bob Schieffer, Times reporter David Sanger, who conducted the Trump interviews with colleague Maggie Haberman, said his paper decided to publish transcripts to protect itself from charges it had mischaracterized the Republican nominee.

"That's because we're in a situation and a political atmosphere right now where you get a lot of people saying, 'Oh, you know, the liberal media took Mr. Trump out of context or asked a trick question or whatever, " Sanger said. "I think these days in things as important as presidential interviews it is important that we do that."

In the transcripts, the Times kept its punctuating to a minimum: It used just 61 em dashes in its first interview with Trump, which took place over two telephone calls on March 25. In its second interview on July 21, which was shorter, there were 41 em dashes. (Sanger and the Times' politics editor, Carolyn Ryan, did not respond to requests for comment. In an email, Haberman declined to comment.)

In March, The Washington Post produced a transcript and the audio of its editorial board's in-person interview with Trump. Even before the meeting, much thought had gone into how the paper would reproduce the written exchange. It assigned 10 Post journalists to break up the transcribing work and tasked James Downie, digital opinions editor, to oversee the final product.

Downie told CNBC.com he was "nervous" from the start, particularly with what to do in the event Trump innocently misspoke. Fortunately, Downie said, no such incident occurred, but the endeavor of merely conveying Trump's speaking style was a uniquely difficult deadline assignment.

"It was very much unlike any other transcription I have been a part of," Downie said. After pulling together the various chunks his reporters transcribed, Downie relistened to the entire audio. Ultimately, the transcript resulted in 81 em dashes and 57 ellipses. The other big question Downie grappled over was how to capture the extra-verbal aspects of the interview, without overly editorializing it. He ultimately decided to interject in two places: once, when Trump was pointing to a Washington Post columnist while speaking, and at another point, when he was relaying an anecdote that included an expletive. The transcript noted that Trump said it "in a hushed voice."

"He tried to mouth it as much as possible," Downie recalled. "In both cases, I think it helped [the] reader and made it a more accurate transcript."

But all this meta-analysis can numb the media's mind after a while.

The tedium of fine-parsing Trumpspeak can at times find reporters and pundits dumping block-quotes of Trump speeches under headlines with the phrase "word salad."

At other times, the media has taken to mock-crowd sourcing the syntax of Trump's sentences. During a live podcast show in July, the hosts of Slate's Political Gabfest attempted to diagram a Trump sentence from a speech he gave in South Carolina. Conceding defeat, they later turned to their online followers for assistance.

Inarticulate or savvily obtuse?

But the levity shouldn't obscure the severity of the work.

"The problem with transcripts is if you get something wrong, you can create an incident," said Catherine Hagman, a former transcription team leader at Federal News Service.

In 2005, a controversy erupted over the transcript of a White House press briefing, when President George W. Bush's press secretary, Scott McClellan, was asked about the Scooter Libby trial. Federal News Services, which transcribed White House briefings at the time, quoted McClellan as having said "that's accurate" when asked if former Bush advisor Karl Rove had a conversation with a covert CIA officer. The White House later challenged that McClellan had said the opposite and insisted that the official transcript be changed. FNS, after reviewing the tape, stood by its draft.

In 2008, an FNS transcript of the congressional testimony of Gen. Burwell Bell, then commander of U.S. Forces in the Korean Peninsula, caused tension with South Korea. Bell was quoted as saying that the key U.S. ally would pay $10 billion to relocate U.S. troops in the country, when it had actually agreed to only pay half that much. Afterward, Bell and the Pentagon insisted that he was misquoted. FNS again stood by the accuracy of its transcription, but acknowledged that the words may not have conveyed the proper context.

Throughout this campaign, Trump has routinely claimed that he has been misquoted or taken out of context by a media he argues is treating him unfairly.

At the same time, there's an ongoing press debate as to whether quoting Trump verbatim conveys him most accurately. This debate divides, in part, between those who think Trump is merely inarticulate, and those who think he's being savvily obtuse.

"It is very new terrain where some of the deficiencies in coverage is not with bias or agenda, but the literal technical challenge." -Angelo Carusone, Media Matters executive vice president and in-house Trump cryptologist.

The renowned cognitive linguist George Lakoff is among those who argue the latter.

"Any unscrupulous, effective salesman knows how to use (your) brain against you, to get you to buy what he is selling," Lakoff wrote earlier this year, in an article titled, "Understanding Trump." He added that Trump's coercive tactics include his grammar and phraseology.

"With Trump, it is important that people look at the full interview and get the context," said Angie Drobnic Holan, editor of the Tampa Bay Times' PolitiFact. "Don't get me wrong. The context might be as appalling as the quote lifted out of it, but it is, I think, in most cases necessary to have the context."

The iconic Howard Baker line during the Senate Watergate hearings — "what did he know and when did he know it?" — might well be updated thusly in 2016: What did he say and how did he say it?

Yet oftentimes, the answer is unclear. In arbitrating whether Trump's Second Amendment comment constituted a threat of violence against Clinton, PolitiFact was forced to punt last week.

"Our only conclusion: Trump's rather elliptical words certainly left room for interpretation," the website demurred.

As it were, transcribing Trump has redefined the roles and divisions in the political media food chain, as all interested parties are now compelled to take up the original source material.

Media Matters, the left-leaning, pro-Clinton watchdog group, said that Trump has not only changed the the nature of its work, but its relationship to the mainstream press.

"It is very new terrain where some of the deficiencies in coverage is not with bias or agenda, but the literal technical challenge," said Angelo Carusone, Media Matters' executive vice president and in-house Trump cryptologist. "It does create a dynamic where you see more camaraderie, because now you have multiple different entities trying to decipher what they just heard, and nobody wants to be responsible for providing the quote or comment that is wrong."