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?Dowd could have chosen to paraphrase that statement. Instead, she used quotation marks. Here’s what she wrote in her original column:
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 (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.