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.