The Art of "Quotemanship" and "Misquotemanship"

Quoting people accurately is really hard — and you can quote me on that.


by Frank Herron
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Be Careful When Comparing Quotations. Context Matters. And Video Helps.

Today’s inky version of the Boston Globe devoted plenty of space to the debate between the two major candidates for governor of Massachusetts that took place in Worcester last night (Oct. 27). The coverage of the Charlie Baker/Martha Coakley tussle looked thorough and robust. And the Globe obviously deemed the debate important. The news article began on the front page.

From the news report

From the news report

[In contrast, I looked for anything about the debate in today’s print version of the Boston Herald and came up with nothing. The Herald does have an Associated Press version on its web page.]
One itsy, bitsy portion of the coverage puzzled me at first, however. The way it appears in print, a comment by Charlie Baker differs in the straight-news report of the debate and an analysis of the debate (both of which appear on Page A8).
The sections in question are at right. For context, at one point moderator Latoyia Edwards of NECN asked Baker if there would be a place for Martha Coakley in his administration should he win next Tuesday’s election.
From the news analysis

From the news analysis

Evidently the notion alarmed Coakley so much that she did not give Baker a chance to respond. She said, “No.” Baker’s comment in the wake of her interjection appears in two different ways in the two articles:

News Report: “Oh, that was great.”
Analysis: “That was really good, by the way.”

I’m left wondering: What did he really say? There’s a possibility he said both. And that, in fact, is what happened.

The exchange is in the , between the 51:48 and 52:10 minute marks of the debate as presented on NECN’s web site. When Coakley said “No,” Baker said nothing at first. Instead, he leaned over the lectern and laughed. Then he said “Oh, that was great” as the news report had it. Then Edwards asked Coakley the same question. As she was answering, Baker turned to his opponent and said directly to her, “That was really good, by the way.”
So, the quotations are BOTH correct. One can only see that from the video. The limitations of the ink coverage doesn’t really come into play in that one. In another item that came up, however, the limitations are clear. As part of a sequence of questions requiring only a “yes” or “no” answer, Edwards asked the candidates whether or not illegal immigrants should get drivers licenses. Coakley demurred and said, “I don’t know yet” and said she didn’t want to answer a question that “can’t be answered yes or no.” She elicited groans from the audience. Baker quickly said, “No.” He got five seconds of pretty loud cheering from the audience, which was in the Hanover Theatre for the Performing Arts.

NOTE 1: I’m still a little puzzled that the Herald included nothing at all in the printed version I bought in Winchester. Time couldn’t have been the main reason. After all, the Herald included an article about the Monday Night Football game between the Cowboys and Redskins, er, team from Washington.
NOTE 2: Neither Globe story had a Worcester dateline, which tells me the paper did not send anybody to the debate. They watched it on television. Interestingly, the news analysis pointed out that Worcester is “an area of the state whose voters often feel neglected by the Boston-centric political establishment.” Right. And it looks like you can add the Globe to that group that conveys a feeling of neglect!


by Frank Herron
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Quotations Are Primary, Even in a Primary

Boston Herald cover, 10 September 2014

Boston Herald cover, 10 September 2014

Today’s Boston Globe and Boston Herald each used the front page as a take-off point for coverage of Seth Moulton’s upset primary victory, which will end Rep. John Tierney’s 18-year stint in Congress. (The Herald could not resist calling Tierney’s time on the Hill a “nine-term reign,” perhaps overstating his influence just a little.)

The coverage reveals an inescapable journalistic fact: Quoting people accurately is difficult.

Both the Herald and Globe went to the same portion of Moulton’s acceptance speech at the Veterans of Foreign Wars hall in Salem for the first quotation of the respective stories. Both started the third paragraph (of the printed version I bought in Winchester) with the same excerpt:

The Herald: “Our win tonight says two things. First, that we’re fed up with gridlock in Congress. Seriously fed up. And, second, that voters want to keep this seat blue.”
The Globe: “Our win tonight says two things. First, that we are fed up with the gridlock in Washington. And second, that voters want to keep this seat blue.”

So, what’s different in these presentations, each of which is less than 30 words?

1. The Herald uses the contraction “we’re” and the Globe has “we are.”
2. The Herald says “gridlock in Congress”; the Globe says “gridlock in Washington.”
3. The Herald says “Seriously fed up”; the Globe omits the phrase.

Let’s go to the tape, which can be found on the web site of New England Cable News:

On the NECN site, the video of Moulton’s quoted portion begins at the 1:18 mark and ends at 1:35. From this we can see exactly what Moulton said and evaluate the reporing.

1. The contraction. He said “we are,” as the Globe reported, not “we’re.” OK, this is not all that surprising. Moulton majored in physics while at Harvard. Scientific equations do not lend themselves to contractions. I’m glad the Globe preserved the tone. Is it a big deal that the Herald contracted the phrase, giving Moulton a more informal tone? Let’s, er, let us say it’s, er, it is not all that big a deal. At least the Herald did not go so far as to Brooklyn-ize Moulton with a “…weez [contraction of ‘we is’] fed up with the gridlock…”

2. The gridlock. Moulton said “gridlock in Washington,” so score one for the Globe. There’s no reason for the Herald report to have “Congress,” although the two words are interchangeable to many these days. Does Congress=Washington. No. Ask anyone living in Anacostia.

3. The “fed up” phrase. Here, the Herald got it right. Moulton did say “seriously fed up.” The trouble for any reporter at the event is that the comment is very hard to hear. The listeners devoured Moulton’s “we’re fed up with gridlock in Washington” comment. Yes, they ate it up. And they hungrily erupted in cheers. This which overwhelmed Moulton’s three-word phrase. I heard it on the tape only because I was listening for it. I understand how the Globe reporter missed it. But the Herald reporter, to his or her credit, got it.

Does any of this matter? None of the changes are damaging, really. They all likely fall in the “no harm, no foul” category. But changing a word (Washington to Congress) and omitting a phrase are dangerous transgressions. The double-quote mark tells the reader that this is EXACTLY what was said. It’s hard to get it right sometimes. But it’s worth the effort.


by Frank Herron
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Saved by the Tape: British Lord Did NOT Issue a Bounty for Heads of Obama and Bush

A controversial British parliamentarian of Kashmiri origin, Lord Nazir Ahmed (shown here), had a tough week trying to undo some damage done by a misquote.
As reported by The Telegraph of London, he was suspended on Sunday (16 April) by his Labour Party after a report that he had offered a 10-million-pound bounty for the capture of President Barack Obama and former President George W. Bush.
Here’s how that offer was presented in The Express Tribune of Pakistan under a headline of ” ‘Sterling’ bounty offered for Bush, Obama” as published on 15 April and written by “Our Correspondent.”

“If the US can announce a reward of $10 million for the captor of Hafiz Saeed, I can announce a bounty of 10 million pounds on President Obama and his predecessor George Bush,” Lord Nazir said, adding that he would arrange the bounty at any cost even if he was left with the option of selling all his personal assets, including his house.

The quoted statement so alarmed Britain’s Labour Party that the organization immediately suspended him pending a formal inquiry. Lord Ahmed (aka Baron Ahmed of Rotherham, Britain’s first Muslim life peer) denied this vehemently and, according to the BBC, said he, too, was “horrified” by the report. Here’s what he told the BBC:

“I’m shocked and horrified that this whole story could be just made up of lies…” he said.
“I never mentioned President Obama, I never mentioned the word bounty.
“It was a discussion about people investing in Pakistan and yes, I did talk about illegal wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and Bush and Blair involved in it, but I did not mention any bounty or President Obama, and the sort of rubbish that’s been on the media in the last 24 hours.”

He may have been “shocked and horrified” by the story, but he should be aware that previous inflammatory comments of his have laid the groundwork. Evidently journalists found the report that he would call for such a bounty to be BELIEVABLE. I’m not excusing the error at all, I’m just saying that his name has been linked to people who might make such a statement.
Anyway, the lord said he had video footage of his remarks and that he would make it available to the Labour Party and the public.
The Express Tribune reviewed footage of the comments. It turns out, according to the paper’s correction, which was printed on 18 April, that Nazir said he wanted to

“raise and offer £10 million so that George W Bush and Tony Blair can be brought to the International Court of Justice on war crimes charges.”
There was NO MENTION of President Barack Obama. The correction adds:

The Express Tribune’s reporter, who covered the story in Haripur, also clarified that he had mistakenly written the name of Obama – and clarified that the offer by Nazir aimed to raise money to try Bush and Blair in the International Court of Justice for war crimes. The error is deeply regretted.

As well it should be–regretted. But it’s very hard to “unring the bell” and “put the toothpaste back into the tube” and all that.
It’s generally a good idea to make your own recording.


by Frank Herron
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Sacking of Soccer Coach in South Africa Dredges Up an Embarrassing “Misquote” Claim

A column by soccer-writer Mninawa Ntloko of South Africa’s Business Day deals with the recent firing of Vladimir Vermezovic (right), coach of the South African Premier Soccer League’s Kaizer Chiefs. The article, published on 18 April, chronicles a stormy relationship the coach had with the media and others. Ntloko recalled the time when the coach stormed out of a press conference in Johannesburg in October of 2010. The volatile Vlad appeared to be on the verge of impaling the journalists because he was upset that he had been “misquoted” by the Daily Sun. The paper had printed an article in which the coach criticized the play of one of his star players–Kaizer Motaung Jr., whose father is executive chairman of the team.
It turns out that the reporter from the paper had a tape recording of the interview, which exonerated the reporter and the Daily Sun. Later, the coach acknowledged that he had not read the article properly and was misinformed. He apologized to the Daily Sun–“and only the Daily Sun“–two days after his outburst. The apology ruffled the feathers of the soccer scribes. They were miffed that he did not apologize to the entire group. The reporters then tried to give him the silent treatment.
A few days later, he apologized more generally. Here’s what he said during that apology/explanation, as presented as, I guess, only a Serbian can–according to a 21 October 2010 posting by www.kickoff.com:

“I said what I said [at the village in Naturena]. I was emotional and coming from Serbia, sometimes from that we think with the balls not the brain. My English is not so perfect and I was in trouble.
“I would like this opportunity to apologise to everybody. During my time here I have had a good relationship with the media and we can continue in that way.”

The balls/brain distinction is classic. But now the relationship is over.


by Frank Herron
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To Tape or Not to Tape? That Is the Question a Musician Asks

Musician Nthato Mokgata (who also goes by Spoek Mathambo) clearly laid out the often-unspoken unease that exists between interviewer and interviewee.The exchange between the singer and journalist Andrea Nagel is captured in the beginning of an article that appeared in the 13 April 2012 edition of The Times of South Africa. Mathambo asked that the interview be recorded; the interviewee apparently resisted the suggestion. Here’s how the exchange appeared in the paper:

Before we begin the interview he puts me in my place, insisting that I use a dictaphone.
“I’ve been misquoted by journalists so many times,” he says, exasperated by my insistence on taking notes.
“You’re probably misquoting me right now.”

Of course, in addition to buying ink by the barrel, journalist usually have the last word.
Nagel ended the piece with a bit of a dig at the singer and his concern about accurate quotations.

As I leave, Mathambo, who has loosened up since the start of our interview, offers to put my name on the guest list at his performance on Saturday night.
At least I think he invited me, but I wouldn’t want to misquote him.

I must say, I’d really like to know one thing. Despite apparently rejecting his request that she record the interview, did she plan on accepting the offer of a free pass and attend the concert?


by Frank Herron
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Tale of the Tape: Abridged Too Far

Thanks to Erik Wemple (“NBC issues apology on Zimmerman tape screw-up”; 04/03/2012) and others for staying on top of NBC’s mishandling of the recording of the police dispatcher’s discussion with George Zimmerman, a volunteer neighborhood watch leader, who admitted shooting and killing 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, in February but claimed it was in self-defence.
On its “Today” show on March 27, NBC presented a portion of Zimmerman’s call this way:

Zimmerman: This guy looks like he’s up to no good. He looks black.

Anyone who had heard the complete recording could tell right away that something was wrong. Zimmerman did NOT volunteer his impression of the race of the “guy”. Here’s how the conversation really went (as a part of this recording):

Zimmerman: This guy looks like he’s up to no good. Or he’s on drugs or something. It’s raining and he’s just walking around, looking about.
Dispatcher: OK, and this guy—is he black, white or Hispanic?
Zimmerman: He looks black.

Presented another way, here’s how this verbal material was mangled by NBC in its broadcast on March 27, with the deleted material crossed out:

Zimmerman: This guy looks like he’s up to no good. Or he’s on drugs or something. It’s raining and he’s just walking around, looking about.
Dispatcher: OK, and this guy—is he black, white or Hispanic?
Zimmerman:
He looks black.

It removed Zimmerman’s speculation about the “guy” being on drugs. It ensured that listeners would think that race was one of the first things on Zimmerman’s mind.

NBC’s apology was of the evasive, obfuscatory “mistakes-were-made” mold:

“During our investigation it became evident that there was an error made in the production process that we deeply regret. We will be taking the necessary steps to prevent this from happening in the future and apologize to our viewers.”

Both Fox News and media watchdog NewsBusters pointed out this mishandling of the recording. MSNBC used the same abridgment as the “Today” show, too. It changed its online reporting about the tape and the recording, calling the change a “clarification.” At the bottom of the story, an Editor’s note says,

“A clarification was made to this story on March 28, 2012. An earlier version of the story truncated George Zimmerman’s quotes to a 911 operator in a way that may have changed the meaning.”

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