The Art of "Quotemanship" and "Misquotemanship"

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

by Frank Herron

Quote-Happy Candidate Trump Should Ignore His Quick Twitter Finger

MQ 02282016 Trump Tweet
Earlier today (Feb. 28, 2016) he (or a surrogate) did it again. Donald J. Trump passed on a quote that he thinks could help make America great again. (Would love to know exactly what decade provides the template for “great”….)

“It is better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep.”

However, Candidate Trump–eager to trumpet aggressiveness–ignored the source of the quote.
It is widely attributed to Benito Mussolini (1883-1945), the brutal fascist Italian leader.
The tip-off to Candidate Trump, as you can see in the Tweet and the Re-Tweet pictured here, should have been that the quotation came to him from something called “ilduce2016”. That should have raised an eyebrow.
Again, as is the case in many “too good to be true” quotes, Candidate Trump should have taken a moment to learn more about it.
For the record, Il Duce was not exactly a “lion,” certainly not at the end when he tried to sneak across the border to safety–not as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, rather as a dictator in a German soldier’s clothing. Check out entry No. 9 on this site at

by Frank Herron

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

Aussie Journalist Does Not Destroy (or Degrade) a Quote to Save It

The Sydney (Australia) Morning Herald from this morning [meaning October 15] has a piece on the crisis at Kobane, which is on the border that separates Syria and Turkey.
The article (“Have Obama and Abbott given up on Kobane?”–refering, of course the U.S. President and Aussie Prime Minister) is by Paul McGeough, based in Beirut. He says military planners and civilian overseers are “hog-tied by the constraints of conflicting coalition agendas” as they try and figure out just how much destruction is needed. McGeough says this brings to mind something said about 46 years ago:

…it all revives the wondrous claim by the American officer in Vietnam: “It became necssary to destroy the town to save it.”

From the New York Times, Feb. 8, 1968, page 14.

From the New York Times, Feb. 8, 1968, page 14.

This is a sometimes-doubted, oft-quoted, and more-oft-misquoted statement from an unidentified major as reported by Peter Arnett of the Associated Press on February 7, 1968. [The full article from the New York Times of February 8, 1968, appears at right.]
The statement often appears as something like “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.” While some question the authenticity of the original reporting, the statement entered the lexicon in various forms. Glad that the original as-it-first-appeared-in-print comment remains in play here in Australia.
Would rather that someone would finally come clean about the original statement.
Was it actually said?
If so, who said it?
Then, let them trademark it. It has legs.

by Frank Herron

What’s the Best Environment for the Survival of a Darwin ‘Quotation’?

How do misquotations survive?
They need a good environment in which to thrive.

Charles Darwin (1809-1882)

Charles Darwin (1809-1882)

Maybe a hint is buried in a statement wrongly attributed to English naturalist and evolution theorist Charles Darwin. The statement surfaced on 19 September 2014 in the Waterloo [Ontario] Region Record , in a piece by Joyce Hodge:

“There is an oft-cited quote (which is actually a misquote) attributed to Charles Darwin: ‘It is not the strongest of the species that survives, not the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change’.”

First of all, kudos to her for writing that Darwin did not say this. However, it really is not a misquote. Although the statement, which lies in innumerable business-conference Powerpoint presentations, expresses a wonderful point about the importance of adaptability, Darwin never said this, exactly.

Prof. Leon Megginson, president Southern Management Association, 1972-1973

Prof. Leon Megginson, president Southern Management Association, 1972-1973

It was actually said by Professor Leon C. Megginson, but that really won’t get anyone’s attention, will it?
The Darwin Correspondence Project explains this in “six things he never said.” The site credits the sleuthing of a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, Nick Matzke, for tracing the origins of this particular species of quotation. Matzke found an article by Leon C. Megginson in a 1963 issue of the Southwestern Social Sciences Quarterly. There, Megginson paraphrases Darwin in this manner:

According to Darwin’s Origin of Species, it is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself.

You will notice there are NO QUOTATION MARKS in Megginson’s presentation. It’s a paraphrase. Megginson helpfully turned On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859) into a very Tweetable summary. But it’s Megginson’s words, not Darwin’s. (Matzke’s work appears in a blog entry intriguingly titled “Survival of the Pithiest,” which I love.)
Of course, the misquotation lives on, and on, and on. It’s not surprising that the Waterloo paper presented it, and kept Darwin’s name stuck to it. After all, the words will live a LOT LONGER in the mouth of Darwin than in the mouth of Megginson, a longtime (and quite revered) professor at Lousiana State University. And people easily adapt. They use it–Joyce Hodge is not alone–even though they know that Darwin never said it.

by Frank Herron

Apparently, What’s Good for the Misquoter is Good for the Paraphraser. And Vice Versa.

Sometimes a misquotation is so entrenched that it becomes strangely acceptable to paraphrase the misquote..

Charlie Wilson, from the cover of Time, 24 January 1949

Charlie Wilson, from the cover of Time, 24 January 1949

That’s what happened in the 12 September 2014 editions of The Daily Telegraph of Sydney (Australia).
In an editorial about economic revival of New South Wales, the writer did this, using a misquote of a statement made in 1953 by “Engine Charlie” Wilson, longtime the head of General Motors. The editorial began this way [emphasis added]:

One of the most famous misquotations in history is often attributed to Charles Erwin Wilson, a former president of General Motors who became the U.S. Secretary of Defence in 1953.
At the time of his appointment Wilson was supposed to have said: “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country.” His actual words were significantly different, but the misquote lives on.
To paraphrase Wilson, what’s good for NSW is very definitely good for Australia….blah, blah, blah.

The writer established that Wilson’s statement is often misquoted. Great.
Furthermore, they write, Wilson’s “actual words” were “significantly different.” Great.
Also, they add, “the misquote lives on.” So far, so good.
Where are they going with this? Will the writer correct the record and give Wilson’s “actual words”? The writer heads in another direction. They ease it into first gear and step on the gas, plunging ahead. He or she takes the misquote, acknowledges it as a misquote and then uses it as the takeoff point for the editorial–following the same rut in the road that many.
Yes, indeed, it is a shame that “the misquote lives on.” The writer, acknowledging that fact, then adds to the longevity. The editorialist simply could not resist using the common “what’s good for X is good for Y” formula.
The trouble is that Wilson was more suble and made a more challenging point. The misquote is based on something he said during his confirmation hearings before the Senate Armed Services Committee, after he had been nominated by President Eisenhower to be Secretary of Defense in January 1953. Wilson was president of General Motors at the time. At one point in the hearings, Sen. Robert Hendrickson (R-NJ) asked him if he could make a decision as secretary of defense that would be detrimental to the interests of General Motors. He said he could, adding [emphasis added]:

“for years I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa. The difference did not exist. Our company is too big. It goes with the welfare of the country.”

Unfortunately, it apparently took too long for the entire quote to come out. The hearing (on 15 January 1953) was closed. According to this wonderful retrospective, the Detroit Free Press, scrambling for information, reported Wilson’s comment (second-hand, and a few days after the hearing) in this way [emphasis added]:

“His answer, as quoted by one senator, was ‘Certainly. What’s good for General Motors is good for the country’.”

That’s all that many people needed to hear, and that early twisted, shorthanded, hearsay version became a staple anti-business commentary. It is, after all, a wonderful embodiment of a patronizing attitude of a self-centered wealthy businessman and corporate leader.
Too bad it misrepresented the statement of “Engine Charlie.” And jump-started a hard-to-kill misquotation.

Crikey! The original quotation could have served the editorialist just as well as the misquotation. I wonder if they would consider the vice versa: “what’s good for Australia is good for New South Wales.”

by Frank Herron

Some Haven’t Gotten Up from Stumbling a Bit over a Ray Rice Comment on 23 May

Disgraced Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, speaking at a May 23 press conference in Maryland.

Disgraced Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, speaking at a May 23 press conference in Maryland.

This week’s news has brought more attention to former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice’s May 23 press conference. That’s where he tried to offer a life-lesson but did it in an oafish manner. The context? You likely know it: He and his wife explained some of what happened in and near that elevator in Atlantic City in February. Whatever did happen (which was not widely known on May 23) was that he dragged his soon-to-be-wife out of an elevator after some kind of altercation that left her knocked out, cold.
In an awkward mea culpa he said:

“One thing I can say is that YOU KNOW sometimes in life, you will fail YOU KNOW. But I won’t call myself a failure. Failure is not getting knocked down; it’s not getting up.”

That’s exactly how he said it. It’s about 1:55 into the video that’s part of a transcript put together that day by the Baltimore Sun newspaper.

News coverage was vast. But that day a word crept into the statement (a problem)–and the two “you know” fillers were taken out (not a problem). Reports from 23 May by numerous outlets (including Reuters and Fox Sports, for instance) added a word, changing the last clause from “it’s not getting up” to “it’s not getting back up” [emphasis added].

I know. It really doesn’t change the meaning. One trouble, however, is that the added “back” lingers. Articles posted online by Vanity Fair and Mother Jones on 8 September include the added word. That’s too bad because it’s easy enough to check the transcript and compare it to the video of the news conference. Takes a couple of minutes. But, for some reason, many journalists assume a quote is accurate and aren’t particularly interest in checking the accuracy and context. Even when a simple Google search reveals variations and a source of accuracy is available.

For those keeping score at home, such a Google search indicates that the accurate version is still way ahead in references. That’s good. But the wrong one remains on the field of play. Comparing two Google searches indicates the tally, showing the accurate rendering with about 78 percent of the reference:
13,300 hits: For a search that included the phrases “ray rice” “not getting knocked down” “not getting up”.
3,800 hits: For a search that included the phrases “ray rice” “not getting knocked down” “not getting back up”.

By the way, Rice’s comment echoes a statement often attributed to coaching quote-magnet Vince Lombardi. It often appears something like this:

“It’s not whether you get knocked down; it’s whether you get up.”

Surely that principle has been hollared many times by many football coaches. Was it drilled so deeply into Rice’s brain that he didn’t realize that the “knocked down” reference was totally inappropriate for a news conference dealing with the events that led to the KO of his fiancee?

by Frank Herron

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

Irish Press Is Alert: Don’t Mess with Yeats

Vice President Joe Biden has a penchant for quoting–or trying to–Irish poet W.B. Yeats (shown at right).
On Monday, September 17, he spoke on the phone with a few Iowa supporters while campaigning in that state.
Here’s what he said to Hal Goldstein, according to

“[W]hat you ought to do is, this is, there’s awful lot in transition. There’s a great line from the Irish poet Yeats writing about his Ireland back in 1916, its called Easter Sunday 1916. And there’s a line in that poem that better describes, in my view, where we are today in the world than the state of his Ireland in 1916. It was after the first rising, the first attempt to rise up against the British in the 20th century and he said: ‘All’s changed, changed utterly. Terrible beauty has been born.’

Theblaze was unfazed.
The reaction was different at the IrishCentral web site, which pounced earlier today.
For one thing, Biden got the title of the poem wrong. It’s Easter 1916.
For another thing, Biden’s version of Yeats’ line went this way:

“All’s changed, changed utterly.
Terrible beauty has been born.”

The actual last line is “A terrible beauty is born.”

Although the writing is hard to read, here’s a snip below of the two lines from the manuscript of the poem, from the Web site of the National Library of Ireland.

An occasional Yeats reference has been known to roll from the tongue of the vice president. And it’s not always wrong. He quoted from from Yeats’ A Woman Young and Old
while speaking at a convention of the National Association of Police Organizations in Manalapan, Florida, on July 23, 2012. His presentation came three days after the movie-theater killings in Aurora, Colorado. The somber tone matched this couplet from Yeats:
“Pray I will sing and sing I must
And yet I weep–”
These words, he quoted accurately.
He used the same phrase a month and a half later during a moving speech in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, on September 11, 2012.
He didn’t quite nail it, but he was close. On that occasion, he switched a conjunction and according to this transcript said, “But yet I weep.”
He got eleven out of twelve words right. Not bad.
And yet, Yeats lovers weep.

by Frank Herron
1 Comment

The CONTEXT needs to be screwed, bolted, nailed and glued to Obama’s “You didn’t built that” comment

The Republican National Convention has effectively dismantled an original statement to come up with its “We Built It” campaign. The effort has its foundation in a statement President Barack Obama made in Virginia on July 13. The single sentence that sparked it: “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that.”
That statement, on its own, is all the hammer-and-tong-wielding GOP want people to hear.
It begs context.
That’s what Joe Berland of San Rafael, California, called for in a letter published in the San Francisco Chronicle on Thursday (Aug. 30).
In his letter he chastised columnist Debra J. Saunders–who used the one-sentence quote while writing about the convention–for using the sentence, as quoted and shorn of context, in her column on Aug. 29.
Berland says the preceding sentences need to be screwed, bolted, nailed and glued to the “you didn’t build that” statment. He gives it this way:

“Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system…that allowed you to thrive.
“Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business–you didn’t build that.

Berland is saying, of course, the THAT (which the business builder didn’t build) actually refers to the “American system… roads and bridges.”
Berland’s voice-in-the-wilderness plea at the end of his letter bears repeating:

“Our country would be so much greater if we would argue the facts rather than distort the words of our opposition.”

If fairness to Saunders, the Chronicle columnist, I think the well-intentioned letter-writer took her statement a bit out of context, himself. Referring the Tampa convention’s “We Built It” theme, she wrote:

“This is the Republican response to President Obama’s assertion in July that successful people didn’t succeed without help from teachers, mentors and government: ‘If you’ve got a business–you didn’t build that’.”

It certainly would have been easy for her to add that the statement has been taken out of context, but she did provide some of the president’s thinking preceding the quote.
For the record, an editorial in Thursday’s Anniston Star provided more of the context for the Obama statement, from that July 13 speech:

“Look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. … If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges.
If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.”

He then said, according to the White House transcript of the speech (which eliminates some repeated words and expands some contractions for some reason):

The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.

There’s plenty of opportunity to build, right?

This YouTube clip includes only the “you didn’t build that” statement.

IF you have about 42 minutes, here’s a YouTube presentation of the whole speech.

by Frank Herron

Perils of Punctuation: Even Though the Words Were Correct, a Period Killed the Accuracy

Vigilant media watchdogger Craig Silverman, in his column in the Toronto Star on Saturday 21 April, points out how the addition of a period put a horrible twist to the words of an officer in the Afghan military, Ghulam Jehlani Shafiq (left, as pictured in The Australian on 14 April).
[Silverman has quite a reputation for spotting errors by the media. He does not limit himself to examining quotations only. His book, and blog, share the title: Regret the Error. It’s worth tracking.]
The correction, printed in The Australian on Monday 16 April sums it up well:

DUE to a production error, a quote attributed to Lieutenant Colonel Ghulam Jehlani Shafiq in a report in The Weekend Australian on Saturday (“Afhanistan batles scourge of corruption”, page 16) was altered to change its meaning. Colonel Jehlani did not say: “It’s not like 25 years ago. I was killing everybody.” In fact, he said: “It’s not like 25 years ago I was killing everybody. At that time too we tried not to have civilian casualties.” The Australian apologises for the error.

The statute of limitations, of course, doesn’t help here.
To, perhaps, better illustrate how utterly damaging that type of error is, it might help to see how it originally appeared in print. That’s a screen capture of it at below:

Ah, the good old days! When you could kill everybody! Ouch.

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