Thursday, June 09, 2005

Don't. Fix. Quotes.

When President Bush mispoke a couple of weeks ago and said "disassemble" when he meant "dissemble," most journalists did the right thing and quoted him as he spoke.

One glaring exception was Mark Silva of the Chicago Tribune. He "fixed" the quote to "people that had been trained in some instances to dissemble -- that means not tell the truth."

(The Trib later handled the gaffe by having Silva write a column about it, never admitting a mistake but turning it into a piece on Dubyaspeak.)

Someone at Testy Copy Editors, ADKbrown, sent a note to the public editor and got this silly reply:
Our reporters' first obligation, we feel, is to communicate a speaker's meaning. If a mispronunciation obscures the speaker's meaning, then a reporter must ask questions to clarify it. If the mispronunciation is just that--a mispronunciation and nothing more--then the reporter should render the word as the speaker obviously meant it. In this case, the president left no doubt as to his meaning because, as I recall, he defined the word even as he mispronounced it. So our reporter rendered it as the speaker, the president, intended: dissemble.

I would remind you that we have done the same thing for decades with presidents of all political stripes and levels of education. When John F. Kennedy said "Cuber," we rendered it Cuba, as he obviously meant it. When Lyndon Johnson said "Nigra," we rendered it Negro, as he obviously intended. When Jimmy Carter said "nucular," we rendered it "nuclear," as he obviously intended.

I hope this helps you understand our approach to differing American pronunciations.

Don Wycliff
Public Editor
So this seems like a good time to share a lesson from John Bremner. I transcribed this last year from "John Bremner: Guardian of the Newsroom."
Do we ever change a quote? Well, let me give you my principle.

I would never make an ordinary citizen look bad. I'd never make it appear that I were being condescending or, rather, that I were showing this guy up if he goofed in speech.

What do you do, however, if you get a public figure who goofs in a quote? Are you going to correct it? Suppose you have to use it. You can't paraphrase. ... No answers? Quote it the way he says it? I'm not talking about obscenity here, I'm just talking about usage, grammar. Anyone disagree?

[Comment from teacher]

Very important, the television bit ... because if they read it in the paper one way in the afternoon and then see it on the television that night or the next morning or whatever. A great example of that--

Remember when Alexander Haig was president of the United States? Remember that, that day? What the hell happened? Ronnie was sick, wasn't he? Wasn't that it?

No, he was shot. That's right, I'd forgotten the circumstances. And they couldn't find George anywhere; he was flying around Texas, as I recall. And Haig stepped in and took over. There was no way under ... constitutionally, he had no right.

Anyway, they finally got George back to Washington and propped him up in front of all the cameras and microphones. And George said, I quote exactly, "I want to reinsure the American people."

Now, I was on the road the next day and able to see different papers. The AP story said "I want to reassure," which is probably want he meant to say to the American people. The L.A. Times/Washington Post story said, "I want to assure the American people." And one paper -- in fact, it was in Indiana, a small paper up here that said (and you may disagree with this, you may say it's editorializing; I like it) said, "As a sign of his nervousness, Vice President Bush began his remarks with, "I want to reinsure..."

I thought that was a great way to handle it. It got the thing across and explained it, and I don't think it's editorializing at all. Watching it, Bush was nervous.
Don't. Fix. Quotes.


At 10:23 AM, June 10, 2005, Blogger John Bailey said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 10:25 AM, June 10, 2005, Blogger John Bailey said...


Dubya is possessed of an almost endearing tendency to use the wrong words. Nearly everyone knows what he meant.

Changing the words he used to what the so-called "reporter" +assumed+ he meant is no different than just making stuff up to create a story...

Just another example of the arrogance of the old media...

BTW, nice blog...

At 2:31 AM, June 11, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have a question. I vividly recall that in the big OJ Simpson case, someone printed -- I think it was something he had written while in prison at some pretrial stage.

When the stories that reported the existence of the letter (duly pictured) -- when they quoted it, they cleaned it up big time. Was that cool too? OJ's grammar and spelling really blow. It is OK if he's black? I'm not accusing anyone of anything, I think it was an awkward thing to see such poor education on display, and by a very prominent black guy to boot. It would have felt like piling on to quote the passages straight.

At 2:32 AM, June 11, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

someone printed [a letter he wrote to Cowling, I think] - I meant to write.

At 1:08 PM, April 25, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think it's fair to replace the incorrect word with what was obviously intended in [brackets]. Of course, you'd been to be completely sure that it's the word that was meant.

At 1:10 PM, April 25, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've never shown such blatant signs of dyslexia before. been = need

At 1:08 AM, January 11, 2008, Blogger Unknown said...

while i agree with most of your points, i'm not sure about iron-clad rules.
what if the interviewee is speaking in his second, or third language?
surely we can't say `as a sign of his unfamiliarity with the english language, wen jiabao didn't conjugate his verbs properly.'


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