Special report: Quoting King!

PART 4—THE EDITORS’ NEW SKILLS: For ourselves, we agree with what the Washington Post said about that quotation.

In an editorial, the editors said a featured quotation at the new King memorial misrepresents Dr. King’s meaning. (The “quotation” in question is really a paraphrase.) They said it ought to be amended.

Maya Angelou has agreed. Here’s how the editors started:
WASHINGTON POST EDITORIAL (9/2/11): Last month, Hurricane Irene forced the indefinite postponement of the official dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial. The delay could prove fortuitous if the people in charge use the added time to do some erasure and re-inscription of the quotation on the side of the main sculpture—and this time get it right.
The editors said the “quotation” in question ought to be amended. We would tend to agree. But we were most struck by the striking new skills on display at the Washington Post.

If you click and read that editorial, you’ll be reading some thoughtful analytical work. The editors seem to know how to judge that a paraphrase may be misleading—that a short quotation may have been pulled out of context. Good lord! All of a sudden, the editors are able to offer scholarly, nuanced judgments like these:
WASHINGTON POST EDITORIAL: The words on the monument, edited not by a historian but by an architect concerned about space, are a ham-handed truncation of what Dr. King said, turning a conditional statement into a boast.


Dr. King argued that the [drum major] instinct can be harnessed for noble ends, but only by doing good works and not by seeking accolades for doing them. Notably, he sought no such accolade himself. "If you want to say I was a drum major," he said, "say that I was a drum major for justice." Remove that "if"—as the architects of the monument did—and you are perversely left with the sort of bragging that Dr. King decried.
Good lord! The editing of Dr. King’s statement “turned a conditional statement into a boast!” And it all occurred because one little word—one little “if”—got dropped!

Dr. King was the great moral giant of the last century. His words deserve the most careful, respectful analysis we know how to offer. We agree that the “cultural icons” who picked the featured quotations made a few surprising omissions, as the editors say at one point. We also agree that the “drum major” paraphrase was imperfectly rendered.

Dr. King was our great moral giant. His words should of course be rendered with care. But we were shocked by the skills the editors put on display in this piece. Skills like these have seldom been seen over the past twenty years.

At present, we’re finishing chapter 6 of How He Got There, our study of the press corps’ coverage of Campaign 2000. As everyone must have noticed by now, this turned out to be a deeply consequential election. And let’s be honest: At its heart, Campaign 2000 is an ugly, disgusting, two-year study in misquotation and bogus paraphrase.

Let’s be frank: Deliberately bogus paraphrase. Can anyone really think different?

No one engaged in more of this conduct than the Washington Post. Ceci Connolly was the paper’s lead agent, although she wasn’t alone.

From March 1999 through November 2000, the editors sat there and watched.

Dr. King was the last century’s great moral giant. Plainly, his words should be rendered with care. That said, presidential candidates are important folk too. Their words should be rendered with care.

From March 1999 through November 2000, the Washington Post pretty much ran a scam on the public. (The New York Times was eager to help. So were long lists of major pundits, most disgracefully Chris Matthews.) The liberal world still hasn’t worked up the courage to discuss what actually happened. We’ll go into more detail elsewhere, discussing one small but very sad part of this week’s GOP debate.

We were stunned by the editors’ wondrous new skills. Where were those skills when it mattered?

UPDATE/Wonderful irony: The architects of the monument omitted one little "if," the editors say. Today, the editors seem to know that one word can make a big difference.

We're impressed by this paper's new skills! In December 1999, a hugely consequential misquotation involved a change in only one word. For a week, the Post refused to correct. (The Times refused to correct for nine days.)

It was only one word, Connolly said. (So did Seelye at the Times.) The whole darn thing had thus been "blown out of proportion," they said.

The skills were very weak back then. Or were these newspapers just scamming?