In a New York Times opinion piece, David Carr worries that the practice of quote approval is diminishing the news. In recent years, government and business leaders often agree to interviews only on the condition that they have approval over their quotes. The reason for that condition, obviously, is to scrub out any accidental truth-telling that sounds bad when taken out of context. The problem for the media is that a large amount of what qualifies as “news” is nothing but quotes taken out of context. If you take that away, it’s bad for business.
Consider the news this week about Mitt Romney’s comments at a fundraiser. He said, “I don’t care about them” when talking about the 47% of voters who pay no federal income taxes. Taken out of context it sounds like a rich guy saying he doesn’t care about the poor. But in its proper context it’s nothing but smart campaign strategy. According to Romney, the people who depend on government support have made up their minds to vote for Obama, so it makes more sense for Romney to focus his campaign message on the undecided folks. Who would argue with that? I assume President Obama’s campaign is also focusing on undecided voters while ignoring hard-core conservatives that have made up their minds.
Also in the past week, a quote from 1998 is surfacing in which Obama said he supports wealth redistribution “at least at a certain level.” Out of context it sounds like he wants to take money from people who work and give it to those who don’t. In its proper context it means he supports the current tax system which gets most of its revenue from the rich and uses it to create opportunities for the poor, through education, and other social programs. Almost every citizen supports wealth redistribution “at a certain level” just by supporting public funding of schools.
I’ve been interviewed several hundred times in my career. When I see my quotes taken out of context it is often horrifying. Your jaw would drop if you saw how often quotes are literally manufactured by writers to make a point. Some of it is accidental because reporters try to listen and take notes at the same time. But much of it is obviously intentional. So much so that when I see quotes in any news report I discount them entirely. In the best case, quotes are out of context. In the worst case, the quotes are totally manufactured.
I’ve also been in a number of interviews in which the writer tried to force a quote to fit a narrative that’s already been formed. The way that looks is that the writer asks the same question in ten different ways, each time trying to lead the witness to a damning or controversial quote. It’s a dangerous situation because humans are wired to want to please, and once you pick up on what a writer wants you to say, it’s hard to resist delivering it. That looks like this.
Writer: What is your opinion on leprechauns?
Famous person: I don’t have one.
Writer: So you wouldn’t say you like leprechauns?
Famous person: Probably not.
Writer: Probably not what?
Famous person: I wouldn’t say that about leprechauns.
Writer: Wouldn’t say what?
Famous person: I wouldn’t say I like them.
At that point the writer has his quote about leprechauns: “I wouldn’t say I like them.” The context will be removed later. The manufactured news will say that a famous person is a racist leprechaun-hater. The evidence is that he said so in his own words.
If that sounds like an exaggeration, you probably haven’t been interviewed several hundred times. If any famous people are reading this, I assume they are chuckling with recognition.
The cousin to the manufactured quote, and even more dangerous, is the interpreted quote. That’s when a person with low reading comprehension, or bad intentions, or both, misinterprets a quote, then replaces the actual quote with the misinterpretation. That path might look like this:
Original quote: “Some men are rapists. Society needs to punish them.”
Morph One: “He says men are rapists.”
Morph Two: “He says all men are rapists by nature.”
Morph Three: “He excuses rape because he says it’s natural.”
One of the lessons I learned the hard way is that you never mention a topic in an interview that you fear might be misinterpreted. When I’m asked about my family upbringing, for example, I usually just say it was “normal” and try to change the subject. When I’m asked my opinion about other cartoonists, I usually say I don’t comment on other peoples’ art.
Quote approval is certainly bad for the news industry because it reduces the opportunities for manufacturing news and artificial controversies. But on balance, I’d say quote approval adds more to truth than it subtracts.