More to ‘redaction’ than meets the eye

Attorney General William Barr's redactions to the Mueller report were intended to leave out information, but there's still plenty there to learn.

Jon Elswick/AP
Special counsel Robert Mueller's report with redactions was released April 18.

Whether you think the Mueller report was an indictment or the result of a witch hunt, I hope that we can all agree it has been good for the nation’s vocabulary. We’re throwing around SAT words like exonerate, vindicate, and exculpate, as we talked about last week, and this week we have another one: redacted

If you have glanced at a newspaper, the TV, or any kind of social media over the last month or so, you know that Attorney General William Barr redacted the report before he released it. Many biblical scholars describe the Gospels as redacted though, too. Just what does this word mean?

Today the word is most commonly used in its Mueller-report sense, referring quite specifically to covering up or blanking out portions of a text before publication. It is halfway between editing and censorship, between fixing up a text before it is published and cutting out potentially unacceptable parts. Redaction highlights that it is concealing something, its thick black lines or empty spaces calling attention to themselves. It also makes a distinction among audiences, implying that someone will see this entire document, just not you. This process is sometimes also called “sanitization,” an ominous euphemism if I’ve ever heard one, because deleting or concealing sensitive information can be seen as a kind of cleaning up.

Redact comes from the Latin verb redigere (its past participle is redactus), which can mean anything from “reduce” to “drive back” to “bring (into a new or different condition).” 

A redaction can thus be a new edition, especially an abridged one: “a singing and dancing redaction of the Book of Matthew” apparently appeared on stage in 1977. It also refers to the process of revising work before publication. More generally, it can mean assembling or reducing a variety of sources into one text. The Gospels can thus be described as redacted because the evangelists knit together various source materials in their accounts of Christ Jesus’ life. 

This sort of redacting has given its name to a method of biblical scholarship. Redaction criticism attempts to draw conclusions about biblical authors by examining the order in which they assemble events and what they choose to emphasize and what to leave out. Why is John the only evangelist who mentions the “beloved disciple,” for example, or why does Matthew reorder some of Mark? 

The Mueller report was thus actually redacted at least twice: by Robert Mueller and his team when they condensed thousands of hours of interviews into one document and revised it before publication and by Attorney General Barr when he blacked out certain lines and paragraphs before its release.

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