What the heck is a misquotation?


Disputatious minds don’t want to know: Maureen Dowd has generated quite a few fake quotations down through the years.

Usually, she can at least explain where she was when the fake quotation didn’t occur. In Wednesday’s column, she wasn’t even sure about that.

Did she talk to Bill de Blasio’s wife at the Good Times coffee shop, the Good Stuff Diner or perhaps at the Good Vibrations tanning salon? Given Dowd’s postmodernist lean, it’s very hard to be sure.

Still, we were surprised by commenters at several sites who disputed the claim that Dowd had actually misquoted Chirlane McCray. What Dowd wrote was close enough, quite a few commenters seemed inclined to say.

Did Maureen Dowd misquote McCray? Let’s consider what a “quotation” is.

Instead of reporting what de Blasio said, Dowd decided to focus on his wife, who isn’t actually running for mayor but seems to be way too black. Below, you see the text of what McCray said in the exchange which later came into question.

McCray was asked why Christine Quinn isn’t faring better with woman voters. According to the New York Times, this is what she said:
MCCRAY: Well, I am a woman, and she is not speaking to the issues I care about, and I think a lot of women feel the same way. I don’t see her speaking to the concerns of women who have to take care of children at a young age or send them to school and after school, paid sick days, workplace, she is not speaking to any of those issues. What can I say?

And she is not accessible, she is not the kind of person who you can talk to and go up to and have a conversation with about those things, and I suspect that other women feel the same thing I’m feeling.
Dowd could have chosen to paraphrase that statement. Instead, she used quotation marks. Here’s what she wrote in her original column:
DOWD (8/21/13): Asked why Quinn was not rallying women, McCray, a mother of two, replied: “She’s not accessible. She’s not the kind of person I feel I can go up to and talk to about issues like taking care of children at a young age and paid sick leave.”
Even judged as a paraphrase, we’d call that lousy work. McCray’s main point concerned Quinn’s alleged failure to discuss key issues. Dowd stressed McCray’s secondary point, the claim that Quinn isn’t accessible.

In our view, Dowd’s presentation would be very shaky even judged as a paraphrase. But it doesn’t even come close to being a quotation.

Once you open quotation marks, the words which follow should be the exact words the person said, with minor allowances for minor housekeeping matters. You don’t have to write down “um.” If someone stumbles over a word, you don’t have to record that.

Dowd re-scrambled McCray’s statement in major ways. As paraphrase, it’s very weak. But it simply isn’t a quotation.

Such distinctions hugely matter. The press corps has done lots of harm in recent decades through the use of inaccurate quotation and through inventive paraphrase.

We’d say the most consequential example of each came from Campaign 2000 (winners below). But other campaigns have been affected by bad quotes and bogus paraphrase. Editors ought to be very strict about such basic practices.

Cogitate and discuss: When McCray made her actual statement, she didn’t say anything about being “a mother of two.” Dowd inserted that factoid right before she “quoted” McCray’s reinvented statement.

Should Dowd have done that?

Dowd’s statement that McCray is “a mother of two” is technically accurate, of course. But it helped fuel the sense that McCray was snarking about the fact that Quinn doesn’t have children.

Should Dowd have positioned that factoid there? Very clearly, we’d say no.

Cogitate and discuss.

Most consequential “mistakes:” Most consequential misquotation of the last several decades:

“I was the one that started it all.” Attributed to Candidate Gore, 11/30/99.

(Ceci Connolly and Katharine Seelye accidentally misheard that first word, though totally not on purpose. Once the misquotation was definitively corrected, they simply found another way to pretend that Gore had misspoken. This revived the dying "Al Gore is the world’s biggest liar" theme, which was dying from a lack of examples. The punishing theme dominated the rest of the 2000 campaign.)

Most consequential inventive paraphrase:

Al Gore said he invented the Internet! Repeated by every guild member.

(Rather quickly, this paraphrase started appearing inside quotation marks. In this way, an inventive paraphrase was transformed into a misquotation.)

Those “errors” by the national press corps changed the course of world history. If it turns out that UFOs were involved, The History Channel will tell us.


  1. The false use of quotation marks in this instance was entirely beyond excuse and should be cause of real worry by NYTimes editors. Maureen Dowd faked a quote in a way that was obviously intended to be harmful, but that the quote was faked is what matters.

    Faking quotes is intolerable, and there is no way the faking could have been accidental.

  2. Truly, Dowd is a malicious and false columnist. A tragedy to have such a person writing for the NYTimes.

  3. "During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the internet." -- Al Gore

    To call "Al Gore says he invented the internet" a paraphrase is to redefine the word.

    To put Dowd's largely verbatim patchwork in the same category with the foregoing late-night joke is a bum rap, not entirely unlike saying murder and jaywalking are both violations of the law. I doubt this example of Dowdic mewing will get us into a war.

    Living up to Howler's admirable standards is a difficult task we all fall short of more often than we'd like -- as Howler himself appears to demonstrate today.

    1. No one put it in the same category. You however are moving it from the category of quoting to the category of paraphrasing. Dowd used quotation marks, which you give artistic license to. Are there new rules in the newsroom? Do the new rules include the words "largely verbatim patchwork?"

    2. "The Howler's admirable standards:" Not pretending that you are quoting, when you are not.

      Yeah, what a real fucking high bar.

      Dowd and her editors suck ass, period.

  4. Would it have made any difference to the biased corporate lress corps if Gore had said, "During my service in the United States Congress I took the initiative in the creation of the internet?" That's obviously what he meant.

  5. Poo Poo Platter: (Quotes Au Gratin but Not Forgotten)

    The "quote" Bob laments:

    "I invented the internet." Nobody, attributed to A. Gore

    The quote Bob remembers:

    "During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet. I took the initiative in moving forward a whole range of initiatives....." A. Gore

    The quote Bob sometimes forgets:

    "I would say that my biggest mistake was in my choice of words when I claimed to have taken the lead in the Congress in creating the Internet.....

    I'm -- you know, I'm not proud of what I did to try to take too much credit for it, but I'm proud of what I did to further that goal and bring it along." A Gore

    You know, I got taken to task the other day when examining this famous quote for not recognizing the crucial difference between "invent" and "create."

    We hold the truth of that criticism to be self evident. All words are not invented equal. They are endowed by their Inventor to have certain separate and non synonymous meaning, among these are lives of their own, liberty to paraphrase and the pursuit of parody.

    Long live A. Gore. Initiator of Initiatives. Creator of the Internet. Not The Inventor of the Internet.

    Tommorrow: We'll sail down Love Canal telling a Love Story, never having to say we're sorry.

    1. No, I pointed it out because it was funny that you bolded a journalist misquoting big Al while using it as evidence of what he actually said.

      See, it's like goldy or bronzey, but made of iron.

    2. Yep. Big mistake on my part. You were correct. No. That is wrong. You were right.
      The error will not be repeated. I mean replicated.

      You must, however, share my delight that all is right in the world and that, with this post, Bob is taking K. Seelye off her momentary pedestal and placing her back amongst the Guild Against Gore Gang where she belongs.


    3. Because Al Gore was painted as a liar by the press, he narrowly lost an election (some believe he won it but was robbed by the Supreme Court) that put Bush into office. Bush not only failed to prevent 9/11 and started the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but he did nothing whatsoever about global warming. Now we are past the tipping point where climate effects cannot be prevented and we are suffering wildfires, tornadoes and hurricanes and flooding, with more to come. It may turn out that failure to join hands with other countries to mitigate climate effects has been the biggest tragedy in the story of how Gore was kept out of office. And it all hinges on journalistic malfeasance.

      You have to ask, what response costs will we suffer by permitting distraction from dealing with current problems? How big a disaster has our financial collapse been and what will be the long term consequences, while we are being distracted by racial name-calling from the fact that our government is paralyzed and not acting on anything much these days?

    4. Because Gore was painted as a liar by the press he got three and a half million more votes than the President of his same party
      garnered just four years before in winning re-election.

      You have to ask, did Al Gore narrowly lose an election because he made a statement which, on its face, invited poking fun at him? Maybe. But at the time of the fun poking he was trailing Bill Bradley in a primary, which he went on to win. He also trailed Bush in polls, but went on to win the popular vote. He also probably won Florida and the electoral college, and that was not taken away because the press had a field day with this and other quotes.

      You have to ask if the folks in New Hampshire who voted for Nader over Gore and Bush, thus allowing Bush to capture that state and make Flordia's outcome relevant, did so because Al Gore was portrayed as a prevaricator in the press. I tend to doubt it, but it is possible. Anything is possible. My guess is they voted for Nader because he is a self righteous ideologue who appeals to a sufficiently sized handful of like minded folk.

    5. Quaker in a BasementAugust 26, 2013 at 11:55 AM

      I wonder what Vint Cerf had to say about Mr. Gore's reckless credit grab? Also, I'm sure his long-time nemesis Newt Gingrich probably slammed him for his unwarranted boasting.


  6. Hey Bob, what page of your book discusses the Gore/Internet thing? (And don't say "passim")