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In a New York Times opinion piece, David Carr worries that the practice of quote approval is diminishing the news. In recent years, government and business leaders often agree to interviews only on the condition that they have approval over their quotes. The reason for that condition, obviously, is to scrub out any accidental truth-telling that sounds bad when taken out of context. The problem for the media is that a large amount of what qualifies as "news" is nothing but quotes taken out of context. If you take that away, it's bad for business.

Consider the news this week about Mitt Romney's comments at a fundraiser. He said, "I don't care about them" when talking about the 47% of voters who pay no federal income taxes. Taken out of context it sounds like a rich guy saying he doesn't care about the poor. But in its proper context it's nothing but smart campaign strategy. According to Romney, the people who depend on government support have made up their minds to vote for Obama, so it makes more sense for Romney to focus his campaign message on the undecided folks. Who would argue with that? I assume President Obama's campaign is also focusing on undecided voters while ignoring hard-core conservatives that have made up their minds.

Also in the past week, a quote from 1998 is surfacing in which Obama said he supports wealth redistribution "at least at a certain level." Out of context it sounds like he wants to take money from people who work and give it to those who don't. In its proper context it means he supports the current tax system which gets most of its revenue from the rich and uses it to create opportunities for the poor, through education, and other social programs. Almost every citizen supports wealth redistribution "at a certain level" just by supporting public funding of schools.

I've been interviewed several hundred times in my career. When I see my quotes taken out of context it is often horrifying. Your jaw would drop if you saw how often quotes are literally manufactured by writers to make a point. Some of it is accidental because reporters try to listen and take notes at the same time. But much of it is obviously intentional. So much so that when I see quotes in any news report I discount them entirely. In the best case, quotes are out of context. In the worst case, the quotes are totally manufactured.

I've also been in a number of interviews in which the writer tried to force a quote to fit a narrative that's already been formed. The way that looks is that the writer asks the same question in ten different ways, each time trying to lead the witness to a damning or controversial quote. It's a dangerous situation because humans are wired to want to please, and once you pick up on what a writer wants you to say, it's hard to resist delivering it. That looks like this.

Writer: What is your opinion on leprechauns?

Famous person: I don't have one.

Writer: So you wouldn't say you like leprechauns?

Famous person: Probably not.

Writer: Probably not what?

Famous person: I wouldn't say that about leprechauns.

Writer
: Wouldn't say what?

Famous person:
I wouldn't say I like them.

At that point the writer has his quote about leprechauns: "I wouldn't say I like them." The context will be removed later. The manufactured news will say that a famous person is a racist leprechaun-hater. The evidence is that he said so in his own words.

If that sounds like an exaggeration, you probably haven't been interviewed several hundred times. If any famous people are reading this, I assume they are chuckling with recognition.

The cousin to the manufactured quote, and even more dangerous, is the interpreted quote. That's when a person with low reading comprehension, or bad intentions, or both, misinterprets a quote, then replaces the actual quote with the misinterpretation. That path might look like this:

Original quote: "Some men are rapists. Society needs to punish them."

Morph One
: "He says men are rapists."

Morph Two
: "He says all men are rapists by nature."

Morph Three
: "He excuses rape because he says it's natural."

One of the lessons I learned the hard way is that you never mention a topic in an interview that you fear might be misinterpreted. When I'm asked about my family upbringing, for example, I usually just say it was "normal" and try to change the subject. When I'm asked my opinion about other cartoonists, I usually say I don't comment on other peoples' art.

Quote approval is certainly bad for the news industry because it reduces the opportunities for manufacturing news and artificial controversies. But on balance, I'd say quote approval adds more to truth than it subtracts.

 
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Oct 1, 2012
It sounds to me like Romney got caught being a politician. His words were obviously aimed at a specific audience. They may have made the people he was talking to feel good about themselves, but they make no sense in the context of a more general audience because his whole campaign is based on the idea that he can deliver jobs to Americans. Some of that 47% have to be people who are out of work or stuck in low-paying jobs and he obviously does want their votes. Now some of those people will be thinking that he is calling them moochers and that will probably hurt him to some degree, but we won't know how much until later this year.

What is interesting is how this relates to one of your previous blogs about a future world in which almost everything is recorded and privacy is more or less a thing of the past. How will this affect politics?
 
 
Sep 22, 2012
[The way I read the study you cited is that imagination is the controlling factor for generosity, not wealth. The study flipped the giving percentages of rich and poor just by having them imagine being the other. I'm not sure that supports your point but I grant you that you are technically correct about the poor giving a larger percentage to charity. It's also true that the poor spend a higher percentage of income on everything else they buy, including food, toilet paper, cigarettes, drugs, alcohol, and lottery tickets. That's how percentages work. -- Scott]

Didn't see this. Sure, imagination is the controlling factor. How is that an argument for Mitt Romney and his donors being people of more philanthropic bent than the rest of the population? Surely it's the exact opposite.

And yes, the poor spend a higher percentage of their income on everything. Thus, it's even more laudable that they give to charity, because it means that they can't go out for dinner this week, or they have to make some meaningful sacrifice.
 
 
Sep 21, 2012
A reasonable person would not see two meanings to my quote, but then, there you go.
 
 
Sep 21, 2012
Scott wrote:
[... ] I grant you that you are technically correct about the poor giving a larger percentage to charity. It's also true that the poor spend a higher percentage of income on everything else they buy, including food, toilet paper, cigarettes, drugs, alcohol, and lottery tickets. That's how percentages work. -- Scott]

...Dang, Scott...you really surprise me...I mean, how can you even compare charitable giving to these things the poor spend money on? Charitable giving, unless you're religious, is the ultimate in discretionary 'spending', since you literally get nothing back in return. Has it been so long since you were poor that you think true generosity can be measured in terms of the absolute amount of money you give as opposed to how much of a sacrifice that giving is for you? I know you're not religious but you should still read the Bible sometime as it contains some important lessons. You could learn a few things about the true meaning of generosity from the parable of the widow's donation (Mark 12:41-44, Luke 21:1-4)
 
 
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Sep 21, 2012
I see what you did there! You incited the commenters to prove your point by misrepresenting what you wrote. Clever guy you!
 
 
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Sep 21, 2012
Scott wrote:
[... ] I grant you that you are technically correct about the poor giving a larger percentage to charity. It's also true that the poor spend a higher percentage of income on everything else they buy, including food, toilet paper, cigarettes, drugs, alcohol, and lottery tickets. That's how percentages work. -- Scott]

Scott, you seem to imply (actually you DO imply) that the fact that the poor spend a higher percentage of their income in things like toilet paper somehow diminishes their generosity. It's actually the other way round: it obviously requires more generosity to donate 10% of your income to a charity if you earn $1.000 than if you earn $1.000.000, since it's better to have $900.000 than $900 to spend in trivial but indispensable things like toilet paper.

I'm not gonna comment on the ethics of what you implied. But I do dispute the accuracy of your arithmetic.
 
 
Sep 21, 2012
Dil_Doh, in fairness to you, it's unrealistic to expect more from such a devoted follower of the ideology of the stupid, ignorant, and morally bankrupt.

There's two readings of your quote. One is merely mistaken about a factual matter (that the rich work harder than the poor); the other portrays you as someone who lacks the most basic critical thinking skills as well as the ability to empathise with fellow human beings. I was quite willing to give you the benefit of the doubt on this matter, but I'm not going to stop you from staking yourself to the latter option.

I never said anything about "unearned privilege", by the way. I have nothing against good fortune and blind happenstance serendipity; rather, what I do hate is people who refuse to own up to it, and insist on dragging everyone else down to make their own modest accomplishments seem that much more impressive.
 
 
-1 Rank Up Rank Down
Sep 21, 2012
Therion, Again with the quote mining; Note that I said "Start working to..." not "Start working." The first implies they apply effort to a certain type of activity, not that they don't work at anything now.

You're such a pedant; I don't know how you get through breakfast without collapsing in a quivering ball at contemplation of your own unearned privilege for not being born an orphan female in a ditch in a third world country (or so I assume.)
 
 
-1 Rank Up Rank Down
Sep 21, 2012
Dil-Doh, here's what you said:

"Maybe the poor should stop worrying so much about others and start working to maximize their own earning potential (how's that for callous?). "

Notice: "start working". You want them to "start" working. As if they don't already.

By your harebrained logic, nobody should ever complain about anything. It's a form of "radical skepticism" (questioning bread and butter assumptions that we take for granted in everything else) designed solely to keep the pockets of the rich heavy.
 
 
-1 Rank Up Rank Down
Sep 21, 2012
Therion, you brilliantly provide a sterling example illustrating Scott's points about quote mining, manufactured and interpreted quotes; My hats off to you.

No where did I mention anything about who's working harder. What may be inferred is I think everyone has some responsibility for their station in life; while everyone has external factors that influence their situation, it's the steps you take to deal with or capitalize on them that will ultimately determine your outcome. You have to take steps to improve your situation or you're stuck where you are. I don't think your championing of victim-hood does anyone any favors, though I'm sure it plays right into your superiority complex.
 
 
Sep 20, 2012
@Password,

Armchair conservative, why don't you look at the data? It says unequivocally that the poor give more to charities as a percentage of their wealth. You can speculate all you want about Maslow's hierarchy of needs, but the data won't change to suit your purposes.

Conservativism is the philosophy of the ignorant, and it's being proved with every post. You think your lazy just-so stories about Maslow's hierarchy of needs can disappear the elephant in the room, which is the entire history of civilization? That's how long the rich have been oppressing the poor, and I see no evidence -- not an infinitesmal shred of an inkling -- that Romney and his donors are any different.

[The way I read the study you cited is that imagination is the controlling factor for generosity, not wealth. The study flipped the giving percentages of rich and poor just by having them imagine being the other. I'm not sure that supports your point but I grant you that you are technically correct about the poor giving a larger percentage to charity. It's also true that the poor spend a higher percentage of income on everything else they buy, including food, toilet paper, cigarettes, drugs, alcohol, and lottery tickets. That's how percentages work. -- Scott]
 
 
Sep 20, 2012
[Is it your experience that people who are poor blame themselves? That's a serious question. -- Scott]

I don't think you can generalize so much. Of course many poor people blame themselves, either publicly or privately. Actually I don't like the word blame as it's way too loaded. Many poor people take responsibility for their own situation. Some poor people have more reason than others to blame external !$%*!$%*!$%*!$ It's always possible to succeed, but certainly some people have more resources and opportunities to do so than others.

There's no point in stereotyping and demonizing the rich either. I'd like to hope that most of us can agree that growing wealth inequality is (or will be) a problem though, and figure out how we fix it.
 
 
Sep 20, 2012
therion. the poor cant afford morals. this is why poverty and crime go hand in hand.

you make some good points, but you arent allowing for the good and bad of both castes (rich and poor). there are good rich and there are bad poor.

if you look at maslows heirarchy of needs, it makes sense for the rich to have more opportunities for self actualization, and eventually philanthropy, while the poor have more opportunities to misanthropy.

of course its very complex, and those with morals sometimes selfselect themselves away from wealth, and sometimes having no morals is an easy meal ticket to become rich (hugh heffner).

the key to riding immorality to the top is being ahead of the social curve but within the legal curve (or just able to keep secrets very well). most degenerates spend all their time on concealment, while legal immorality is all around us. all the good vices are saturated with competition by now tho.

What about running around getting girls pregnant (have tons of kids), then treat your daughters like crap, guaranteeing they get into drugs and have low selfesteem, and then start your own !$%* company when they turn 18? pay them in drugs, have stranglehold on their minds, and use their bodies as cash cow. totally legal (besides drugs) and ahead of the morality curve.

i would argue that the current profit sharing/wages qualifies as immorally ahead of curve yet legal. ppl have to work a lifetime for their personal dwelling. its modern day indentured servitude.
 
 
Sep 20, 2012
Dil_doh, just as Scott was wrong about the rich being more charitable than the poor, you are wrong about the rich working harder. For centuries it's been a law of sociology that the less you are paid, the more likely you are to do backbreaking labour. Thus we have dockers out in the cold for 60 hours a week, while a businessman resides in the comfort of his warm office and makes phonecalls at his leisure. You could make an argument that compared with the dock worker the businessman does 0 hours of real work a week.

Making connections, being sneaky and greedy, and happening to be located in the right place at the right time, are far more conducive to financial success than hard work. You're probably rather aware of this, however dimly and inchoately; and that would explain your apparent inferiority complex and your pathological need to massage your own ego and kick the poor while they're down.
 
 
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Sep 20, 2012
[Is it your experience that people who are poor blame themselves? That's a serious question. -- Scott]

I don't know. Somehow I don't think so, but when I talk to someone who's poor (and I do have a few friends who are) money isn't something we talk about. I don't think it's comfortable for either of us. Now that you mention it, I'm curious, but not enough to ask flat out "Why do you think you're poor?"

I come from middle class, and while I've had lean times, I don't think I've ever actually been poor. Well, I suppose I met the technical definition of poverty for a brief period, but I knew that if I had to, I could call my parents and borrow money, so somehow it doesn't feel like that counts.

But your blog has a wide enough audience that hopefully someone can give you a more satisfactory answer than I can. Maybe ask inside a main post?
 
 
-3 Rank Up Rank Down
Sep 20, 2012
@Therion
The rich may give less on a percentage basis but still give much more on a dollar basis- almost twice as much for the incomes with percentages cited in your story. Maybe the poor should stop worrying so much about others and start working to maximize their own earning potential (how's that for callous?).
 
 
-1 Rank Up Rank Down
Sep 20, 2012
[Did you really say the poor give more to charity as a percentage of income? You might want to fact check that. -- Scott]

Yes, I did. See here, for instance:

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/22/magazine/22FOB-wwln-t.html?_r=0

And loads others like it. Judging by your response, you no longer have the passion, energy, or concern about the truth, to merely type a few words into Google, where you'd get a ton of hits.

As I said, your excuse about "context" is wearing thin. Romney isn't in a room with philanthropes by any means. On the contrary, he's in a room with people who devote most of their activist energy to demonizing the poor and making the rich richer. And if you're skeptical that rich people could really be so selfish, then just take a look at history. If you can be bothered.
 
 
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Sep 20, 2012
There's a perfect example of the "paraphrasing" in a comment below. Dooby (and probably half the population of the US) thinks Romney said "I like firing people." What he actually said was "I like BEING ABLE to fire people who provide services to me" (my emphasis). Here's the difference:
"I like getting a root canal."
"I like BEING ABLE to get a root canal."
I think we all would like access to good dental care, but that doesn't mean we enjoy the process. Romney likes the ABILITY to fire those who don't provide the services they should, but that doesn't mean he enjoys firing people. Any manager will tell you that's the hardest part of their job.
 
 
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Sep 20, 2012
Having been a victim of both techniques at the same time -- pushing me to say something bad, and then paraphrasing what I actually said into what the reported wanted me to say (by Business Week, no less) -- I have asked for quote approval since. Unfortunately, I'm not influential enough to receive such consideration. But what I have learned to do during private/phone interviews is stop, consider carefully, and let words escape that can be delivered in sound-bites. But that doesn't work well in public appearances - you'll impress no one with that kind of stilted delivery. Hence, nearly all speeches now are scripted. Too bad.
 
 
Sep 20, 2012
[Did you really say the poor give more to charity as a percentage of income? You might want to fact check that. -- Scott]

According to the New York Times: "For decades, surveys have shown that upper-income Americans don't give away as much of their money as they might and are particularly undistinguished as givers when compared with the poor, who are strikingly generous. A number of other studies have shown that lower-income Americans give proportionally more of their incomes to charity than do upper-income Americans."
 
 
 
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