Wednesday, June 19th, 2013

Why Are Reporters Constantly Misquoting People?

Misquoted Calloway!Los Angeles Times reporter Jasmine Elist interviewed the author known as "Marie Calloway." (That is a pen name; if you don't know her, you could start here.) The Times published the interview as a Q&A on Monday. Calloway's response? "I was misquoted a lot tbf." (Old people: "tbf" stands for "to be fair." I know, it's just so many letters, thank God.) "To be fair" is a weird construction there: to be fair to whom? I asked the reporter about it, baitingly.

This week, tennis star Serena Williams did the same thing over an interview she didn't like, with zero compunction about trashing a reporter. A bit of her forthcoming Rolling Stone profile went online yesterday, in which Serena uttered the unfortunate phrase "I'm not blaming the girl, but…" about the teenaged Steubenville rape victim, and then went on about responsible teenaged drinking. (Serena Williams, of all people, is in no position to talk about normal teenagehood!) How was the response?

Yes. It didn't go over well.

So today Serena walked it back with a self-published statement. "What was written – what I supposedly said – is insensitive and hurtful, and I by no means would say or insinuate that she was at all to blame."

Let's roll tape! What "supposedly" came out of Serena's mouth, while she was on the record with reporter Stephen Rodrick?

She's 16, why was she that drunk where she doesn't remember? It could have been much worse. She's lucky. Obviously I don't know, maybe she wasn't a virgin, but she shouldn't have put herself in that position, unless they slipped her something, then that's different.

So her row-back is just a lie.

The moment something goes wrong after an interview, the response—publicist-advised or not—is to just discredit the reporter, and that's actually quite disgusting. Many reporters think quite a bit about the betrayal process of the interview, and about fairness, and about how the situation of interviewing someone is inherently manipulative. ("We're just folks, just chatting!") But interview subjects, when they later feel betrayed, as a result of feeling exposed, or as a result of readers being outraged, come to this situation afresh. So while a reporter might be gracious and private about any ill outcomes, the interview subject has no compunction about lying—to the point of libel!—about the reporter's supposed malpractice.

"TBF," doing interviews is hard. We say things, we don't remember what we said, we say things in ways that are open to misinterpretation. And sometimes we say things we wish we hadn't. (I have!)

Publicists in particular know this is a good play. They know that "media distrust" is at an all-time high. They know that if people love their client—and who doesn't want to love Serena?—they'll rally around her. Abused by Rolling Stone! Just like that General McChrystal before her. (Who at least issued a statement about that profile that was gracious and took responsibility.) And plenty are rallying:

Most reporters and publications take the charges of misquoting on the chin. Not always. The other month, Seahawks player Richard Sherman told the Vancouver Sun about Adderall use in football that "about half the league takes it and the league has to allow it." It's pretty clearly hyperbole; but then, it was absolutely Sherman's words.

Of course there was some hubbub. Sherman's response? "I didn’t say half, I said a bunch of guys, and then he went with whatever he went with, but that’s the way I put it… It’s just another case of these writers trying to gain a little notoriety in an interview." Which is a funny statement, right? I didn't say it, but I said it. Anyway, then the Vancouver Sun published the video of the interview. As they should.

34 Comments / Post A Comment

Lifeasweblowit (#3,253)

I've definitely been accused of misquoting a source when there was absolutely no misquotation. The only thing people say more often when they realize their words portray them badly is, "it was taken out of context." Pretty difficult, when the bottom-line context is, "I asked you a question and you said something stupid."

ragazza (#241,456)

@Lifeasweblowit Same here. I've also been accused of it when nothing controversial was said or quoted. I think often people think they sound one way and their words in print don't match up with that.

Benja (#149,133)

I got this all the time when I was a culture reporter for an alt-weekly. My response was always, "Would you like me to post the recording?" That usually shut them up.

Multiphasic (#411)

Tbf, what in that interview was worth misquoting? 'Twasn't the most salacious stuff. My perception of Marie Calloway has changed from her being a super-young sex writer to her being a super-young sex writer who maybe could pay better attention to her female friends.

stuffisthings (#1,352)

This happened to me in what was basically my first journalistic assignment ever. I was asked to do a profile of a newly-elected City Commission candidate for our quite widely-read student newspaper. The guy made a bunch of disparaging statements about students and their awful effect on the city (this was a college town where maybe 2/3 of the population was university-affiliated) and how he was going to crack down on them. I wrote it up straight but my editor saw his comments and was like "Whoa whoa whoa, that's the whole story right there!"

I said I really wasn't sure about the context of his statements, and negotiated with the editor to hold the story so I could call him back and give him a chance to defend himself.

I call him back the next day, and he makes *even more disparaging* remarks about students (to a student, writing for a student newspaper). We ran the story and he refused to speak to me for the next four years, even when I was covering city government.

libmas (#231)

I interview people a lot. I try to keep quotes in context. I try not to play gotcha. But I still plan on telling my kids not to give interviews unless they've got something they need to sell. (And even then, tread carefully and stay sober.) Also, that was a really fine piece by Spiers that you linked to, Choire.

Multiphasic (#411)

@libmas Yeah, it's part of why I feel totally uncompelled to have any more thoughts about Calloway for the next two or three years. Anything you can say about her work, Spiers said.

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stuffisthings (#1,352)

Anyway I'm just happy when interview subjects speak in complete, coherent sentences that don't read as gibberish on the page.

deepomega (#1,720)

tbf, I thought tbf meant to be frank. ymmv

freetzy (#7,018)

You know who doesn't love Serena? That Asian line judge at the U.S. Open, that's who.

jfruh (#713)

On the flip side, tbf: once we had a reporter from the Baltimore Sun come and cover our Christmas party, because our Christmas party is vaguely weird and there used to be (back before they fired everybody) some kind of rule where they had to do a "wacky Christmas party" story every December:

Anyway, it's just a dumb Christmas party puff piece and the reporter was taking notes, not recording, but literally everyone agreed that he misquoted them. Like, not wildly, but clearly he took the gist of whatever he had written down and then put it into his own prose. I for one am 100% sure that I have not and never will utter the phrase "Why shouldn't we put on the lampshades at Christmastime?", for instance

stuffisthings (#1,352)

@jfruh You do actually work in your pajamas though right?

jfruh (#713)

@stuffisthings and I did really say "jobs are for suckers." It's my catchphrase!

stuffisthings (#1,352)

@jfruh I can't lie, when we were visiting Baltimore all I could think was "Man, how awesome would it be to quit my dumb job in DC and buy some cheap-ass house here and go back to freelancing."

La Cieca (#1,110)

@jfruh "Why shouldn't we put on the lampshades at Christmastime?" is one of those expressions that loses both charm and meaning when translated from the original French.

Koko Goldstein (#234,489)

@jfruh Oh yeah, I was extremely misquoted for a local article and was kind of shocked how obvious it was. I was in Tucson when the shooting at Gabby Gifford's talk happened, and went to a vigil that evening. A local reporter was getting very general comments from people and talked to my husband and I. Didn't write anything down or record us. He got our ages and positions wrong, and basically took the gist of what we said and made up quotes for us. It was relatively harmless, but bad.

KenWheaton (#401)

Wanna bet the Serena reporter, in a moment of weakness, was like, "Maybe I shouldn't even include this bit, because I know exactly how this is going to play out."

skyslang (#11,283)

@KenWheaton Yeah, but he did. Because it's sensationalist … and look! The article's getting a lot of hits now. Let's be honest: profiles are never, ever about representing a person as they are, they're about tricking celebrities into saying provocative things.
So, sorry. I don't have any sympathy for these "writers".

GailPink (#9,712)

Anyone who does interviews should be getting them on tape so that you can back up your "direct quotes" with the interviewees and avoid this kind of bullshit.

yeezey (#244,926)

I am so shocked that Choire is supportively linking to Spiers's asinine piece that I made this account just to say so! Dude, re-read the thing, or even better, call Emily Gould for a second opinion before you link to that absurd drivel. So disappointed

Kevin Knox (#4,475)

@yeezey What's asinine/absurd about it? I thought she made her points fairly and clearly.

@yeezey Marie?

yeezey (#244,926)

@yeezey It breaks nearly every rule of book reviewing. (See for a clinic.) It criticizes the book for not being the kind of book that E.Spiers would have wanted it to be, blaming the author's unawareness of "craft" for that failing. It conflates "is it good?" with "did i like it?" and fails to interrogate *why* she didn't like it. Perhaps most absurdly, she wishes that the craigslist johns and horny male intellectuals of the books had more fleshed out and well-rounded characters. (At this, reader, I snickered.) As if that were the point of what the author were trying to do. I'ma go ahead and quote Emily Gould for the rest:
"Dismissing Marie Calloway because she hasn't learned something u call "craft." I'm not sure what she's playing but it's not that tired game."
""I was so bored" "I wanted to put the book down" = "this book made me uncomfortable" "this is not what books should be like""
"You want "craft"? Cozy up with some MFA-approved, establishment, samey-same New Yorker short stories. Enjoy. Have fun w that, really"
"maybe a story's themes will coalesce in the final sentences as a character notices a detail in nature."
"maybe it will be limpid, lucid, exquisitely rendered. now THAT sounds fucking super boring"

Kevin Knox (#4,475)

@yeezey There isn't anything more substantial in Emily Gould's statements either, just a differing opinion.
And this: ""I was so bored" "I wanted to put the book down" = "this book made me uncomfortable" "this is not what books should be like""
How the hell would she know? That's baseless supposition.

Kevin Knox (#4,475)

@yeezey Ps: If craft is in fact a "tired game" then maybe I'm done with modern fiction.

yeezey (#244,926)

@Kevin Knox Maybe they are both insubstantial. This has some heft though:

heartbreakturnip (#1,190)

@yeezey I'm not sure the fans of Marie Calloway, or Kate Zambreno, or Sheila Heti (or the authors themselves) will ever be satisfied until everyone likes their books. (Zambreno in particular has made it plain on her blog that nearly any kind of criticism rankles. And I'm not sure people disinclined to like these authors are going to revise their opinions until the friends of Calloway, Zambreno, and Heti (and the authors themselves) quit so obviously logrolling for each other. "I should start by disclosing that I consider Marie a friend," which begins the second paragraph of the response you linked, is never a promising start; but it's also not unusual in defenses of Heti-Zambreno-Calloway begin. And those defenses usually come down to, "You just don't get it," which is never helpful. The frame Spiers brought to that review — craft, especially — is the common one, it's not an outlier; you can dip into any review of books and find reviews framed on just those terms. That doesn't make it right, only the sort of thing to be ignored. But the Heti-Zambreno-Calloway nexus of writers and defenders want to meet each and every poor review with elaborate defenses. It seems a waste of energy, though one can admire the dogged willingness to fight back.

yeezey (#244,926)

@heartbreakturnip Jesus dude. I probably shouldn't even bother at this point, because I'm arguing about a book I like in the comments section of the awl. For the fourth time. But I in fact don't understand you (and the rest of much of the internet it seems) and your animus against mostly Marie Calloway but, sure, if you want to generalize it to Kate Zambreno too, that's sort of fine. (Not going to go along with throwing Sheila Heti in there because are you really saying that Heti's book doesn't have craft, per Spiers's rendering of the word? Have you actually read How Should A Person Be (let alone anything else Heti has written)? It's not even very eccentric at all! This isn't even the work of an indie press, this is a totally commercial, upmarket, literary book, published by one of the majors!) Just speaking for myself here, but the reason that "we" doggedly defend these books is because you, Elizabeth Spiers, and the rest of the internet are so utterly lazy in your dismissals. The "craft" thing is just the tip of the iceburg. OK yes, lack of something called craft is a common denunciation of MC's book– as if there weren't a tradition of experimental writing that this could be a part of. As if Kathy Acker never existed and wrote books that were plenty "boring," but eminently worth existing even so. As if it's ok, there aren't any rules for thinking critically about texts anymore: now you can just forget about the intentional fallacy, and assume that anything morally questionable, naive, or unpleasant that is present in Marie Calloway's texts must be something the author is accidentally, SHAMEFULLY revealing about her own nature, rather than something the author is intentionally putting into the text for you to use your brain to think thoughts about. Instead, every reviewer seems hellbent on being distracted by any issue other than those present/interesting in the text at hand. Case in point your "never a promising start." There was serious substance in that review. Or did you not bother to get past the disclosure? My point: We defend this shit because we don't understand why it bothers you guys so much that you have to HATE it. Why are you even talking about it, if you hate it? Why not just ignore it, like you want me/us to ignore all of the completely ignorant/ill-founded reviews that are so quickly shaping conventional wisdom? I'd say there's something in this situation to do with the way the establishment tries to smack down the unsanctioned upstart– but you're not even the establishment. What even are you all?

heartbreakturnip (#1,190)

@yeezey That's a lot of projection on your part. I don't hate it, actually, and did read Heti's book (thought it was good not great) and loved Zambreno's book HEROINES, kind of liked GREEN GIRL. I read their blogs, a lot, and am sorry that Zambreno has apparently turned out the lights on hers for good. But I said nothing about any of those books above, or my opinion of them, that's all your projection. Keep playing out that string, though, you seem to be having fun with it.

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

So, it looks like Serena should be able to add those who believe she didn't say what she said to those who think she was right to say it, and come up with the majority on her side.

I was once involved in the publication of an interview with a popular person who was well regarded among our readers and who said something insanely stupid.

First of all, the editor on the piece moved it halfway down the piece, because a lot of substantial stuff was in the interview, and this seemed actually like a distraction, but also something it would be irresponsible to leave out entirely. It was a bad, bad flub.

But of course it was picked up everywhere over the offending line, and fans of the interview subject were quick to declare that he must have been misquoted.

To his credit, the subject said that he had indeed said these things.

This did not stop the blame-the-media chorus who continued to argue from no evidence that he must have been misquoted.

Finally we posted audio of the interview. His admirers pointed to it as proof that he had been mischaracterized due to an inappropriate comma (despite the subject admitting to the quote entirely) and I regretted posting the audio. It's a mistake I will never make again.

All that you can do is say, "We did not misquote him and we are not changing our article."

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