On Sunday, President Obama gave a commencement address at Morehouse College in Atlanta. “Keep setting an example for what it means to be a man,” he told the graduates. “Be the best husband to your wife, or boyfriend to your partner, or father to your children that you can be.”
That’s what Obama said, according to the New York Times, USA Today, Politico, and dozens of other news organizations. But Obama never uttered those words. Here’s what he actually said: “Be the best husband to your wife, or your boyfriend, or your partner.”
That’s not a small difference in wording. It’s an enormous change in the meaning of the sentence. In fact, it changes the significance of the whole speech.
How did so many reporters get it wrong? In a way, they didn’t. They quoted the text of the speech as it was prepared for delivery. You can read the whole thing on the website of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. News organizations do this all the time. You send them the text of what you’re going to say, and they post articles after the speech, telling their readers that you said it.
But this time, the speech didn’t go according to script. Literally. Obama changed the “boyfriend” line from hetero boilerplate to explicitly gay-inclusive. He ad-libbed. And this was a heck of a time to do it. The speech was about what it means to be a man. The president of the United States, who until a year ago didn’t support same-sex marriage, has just put an official stamp of masculinity on male homosexuality.
It was also a heck of a place to do it. According to the most recent statewide survey, Georgians oppose allowing same-sex marriage by an overwhelming margin: 65 to 27 percent. Morehouse is a historically black college, and blacks have long been one of the least gay-friendly Democratic constituencies. In the last year, their resistance has subsided, thanks in large part to Obama’s shift on marriage. The Georgia poll found that blacks in that state, by 54 to 31 percent, continue to oppose allowing same-sex marriage. By adding the “husband to your boyfriend” line in front of this audience, Obama was risking trouble.
That’s a huge story, right? Yet the media almost entirely ignored it. Many news organizations simply quoted from the prepared text. Even journalists who watched the speech—an MSNBC reporter, for instance, who noticed the crowd’s “mixed response” and captured a phonetic twist that wasn’t reflected in the transcript—missed the twist in the boyfriend line. Why? Because we hear what we expect to hear.
The strangest mystery is what happened at the New York Times. Every newspaper that reprinted the original Times story about the speech has the hetero version of the boyfriend line. So does every blog that cut and pasted the Times report. On Google, you can find traces of initial Times report. But by Monday, the version of the story that was on the Times Web site—still purporting to have been posted at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, an hour after the speech—no longer included any version of the boyfriend line. Nor was any correction or update appended. The erroneous version of the line had disappeared, with no acknowledgment of what Obama had actually said, much less its significance.
Who reported the line correctly? Mark Morgenstein of CNN caught it. So did Nick Chiles of the Atlanta Black Star, Katie McDonough of Salon, and Andy Towle of Towleroad. To be sure you have the words right, you have to attend the speech or watch the video. (The boyfriend line is at 11:15.) Don’t trust anybody’s text. Even the White House transcript has it wrong.
Why did Obama change the line? My guess is that he never meant to. He simply screwed up. You can be a husband to your wife, and where same-sex marriage is legal, you can be a husband to your husband. But you can’t be a husband to your boyfriend. The prepared version of the line included a phrase that was orientation-ambiguous—“boyfriend to your partner”—and Obama, seeing the word “boyfriend” on the Teleprompter, botched the little words around it. Those little words caused a big change in his meaning. But they didn’t cause a big stir, because the press, by and large, didn’t notice.
So let’s wake up and do our job. The White House issued a speech text about manhood that sidestepped gay marriage. The president then inserted gay marriage into it. Even if it was a slip, that kind of slip doesn’t happen entirely by accident. In some ways, it’s more revealing than a deliberate, prepared choice of words: It tells us something about what he really thinks. Why did the president say more than the White House prescribed? And why did the White House prescribe less than the president said? Both questions deserve an answer. Let’s hear it.
William Saletan's latest short takes on the news, via Twitter: