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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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Sep 20, 2012
[People who depend on government help are more likely to vote for the guy who they think will keep providing it. That's the general point. -- Scott]

A. Just because people pay no income taxes doesn't mean they "depend on the government". It doesn't mean they have a "victim" mentality or expect the government to take care of them. In fact it doesn't say anything about them other than that they did their taxes and under the rules imposed by other people discovered they didn't owe anything. Don't forget in many cases it's Republicans that have passed or expanded these tax breaks. It takes balls to implement tax breaks for people then turn around and call them freeloaders due to those very tax breaks.

B. Sure, the demographics of the group show they're more likely to vote Democrat, but somewhere between 40-42% lean Republican. That means Romney insulted about 40 million people that would be likely to vote for him.

C. If you look at total taxes we barely have a progressive system anyway. The less fortunate in this country make so little (relatively) that you could literally tax them to the poor house and it wouldn't make a dent in the deficit. The top 1% make twice as much as the bottom 40% combined.

So if you need to raise revenue you could raise tax levels by 50% on 60 million people who are struggling day to day to make ends meet, and whom haven't seen their net worth improve in decades, or you could raise taxes by 5% on three million people that have done very, very, very well in recent decades.

Obviously those aren't the only two choices, but I think it makes an important point. The bottom 47% are responsible for less than 15% of total income. Giving them a break is a huge benefit to them and doesn't have a significant impact on the bottom line. Income and tax distribution in the US: http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/09/the-most-misleading-thing-about-the-47-total-us-taxes-are-barely-progressive/262536/
 
 
Sep 20, 2012
@chuck.milner

[I've heard the Mitt "quote" - in my hallucination, it seemed like the 47% he was referring to were voters who said they are going to vote for Obama. There have been recent polls putting Obama at about 47% of decided votes, and Romney at 44-46%.

So Romney was basically saying (to his supporters) that there was no point trying to get the 47% who have already decided to vote for Obama. In his mind, that 47% have made up their minds, they are victims and are dependent on government and like it.]

In the context of where Romney was making his speech (to campaign donors) this doesn't sound very good either. In an earlier comment (which seems to have become lost; can anyone tell me where it went?) I suggested that Romney was basically admitting defeat by saying he was writing off % 4 7 of the voters and that this was not a message I would want to send to campaign donors. Whether he's writing them off because they pay no federal taxes or because they have decided to vote for Obama the point stands.
 
 
Sep 20, 2012
Scott, you seemed to have hallucinated what Mitt said in a similar way to many others.

I've heard the Mitt "quote" - in my hallucination, it seemed like the 47% he was referring to were voters who said they are going to vote for Obama. There have been recent polls putting Obama at about 47% of decided votes, and Romney at 44-46%.

So Romney was basically saying (to his supporters) that there was no point trying to get the 47% who have already decided to vote for Obama. In his mind, that 47% have made up their minds, they are victims and are dependent on government and like it.

But the media have jumped on the 47% number which is also approximately the amount of the population who do not pay federal income tax. But that doesn't mean they are the same 47% who support Obama.

[I think we can all agree that Romney's 47% was a conflation of something or other that doesn't make sense. I assume he was speaking without notes, and I don't think candidates for President get much sleep. But in context it was clear he was saying that Obama supporters who depend on government assistance aren't likely to vote for the Republican who favors less of it. -- Scott]
 
 
Sep 20, 2012
Understanding a person and trying to understand their context is a lot harder than hanging your ire on a sound bite or reacting to the odd sentence. Understand a person in depth can also be less rewarding when you want to disagree with them in the first place. It takes a lot of intelligence AND discipline to be the kind of active listener that you'd want people to be.

It's a lot easier to ignore most of what's said, throw around ad hominem attacks, and declare your assumptions victorious. That strategy requires little intelligence, no discipline or effort, and is superficially rewarding. Which is probably why it's the default behavior for most people and the news-digestion strategy to which reporters cater.
 
 
Sep 20, 2012
As far as quote approval, I think there used to be a whole balance between the media and public figures that has totally broken down.

The media used to maintain their integrity by not allowing people to dictate the terms of the interview. People respected these media sources and public figures knew they needed the press from these sources to get credible information out.

Now, the media is so sensationalist and politically biased that every story gets twisted, beaten and maimed to the point that there's nothing resembling truth anymore. I blame the internet for backing print and television into a corner to where they have to be sensationalist to survive. I can't think of a single news source that I completely trust. This is the dark age of media in America.

[I'm not convinced it's worse than it used to be. We might be more aware of it. -- Scott]
 
 
Sep 20, 2012
@PhantomII

[Scott, I just had a psychic flash. I saw you shaking your head while reading these comments, and saying, "You buy them books, and they eat the covers."]

Maybe the quote approval thing just isn't commentable enough. I believe you, me and phoen1x are the only ones who commented on the main point of Scotts post and we all pretty much agreed with Scott. Maybe everyone else just agreed with that part, figured they couldn't add anything to it or to our posts and went on to the part of the blog post they felt they COULD comment about.

If its any comfort, though, I'm sure folks will at least remember the original blog, so even if the point gets drowned out in comments it will still be made.
 
 
Sep 20, 2012
On the romney 47% issue:

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10000872396390443720204578004650019634728.html?mod=googlenews_wsj

1. It's actually 49% of households with at least one person receiving benefits. Even with the considerations below, I think that this is a high number. Particularly the number of people that need food stamps.

2. 46% don't pay income taxes. Thus save for the republicans in the that group, no one cares about income tax cuts. This 46% also includes a big chunk of the middle class, meaning they'll never really see tax breaks anyways. The only ones they can see is a reduction in payroll taxes, but that has negative long term consequences for this group.

3. Some of the 49% are elderly. Since the US has an aging population this is worrisome in another manner as more burden will be faced by the younger generations who didn't have enough kids. The debate of making sure you have enough kids to pay off your social security is probably best served for another day. A lot of the elderly vote republican.


That said, he has a valid point even if the numbers are debatable. If all you are fed is "the rich aren't paying their fair share" whatever the truth of the matter is, you aren't going to care about tax breaks for them. It's the perception that matters and for them, romney's message would be wasted on them.

I work with healthcare for the poor and what I see is that a lot of them have a high school diploma at best in this area. Stats suggest poverty and inability to work go up with a lack of education. I'm also guessing a lot of people in this lower bracket don't know the pros and cons of the austerity vs spending debate that is on going so talking about the austrian school is just going to get you a lot of blank stares. High school doesn't teach this stuff.

Finally at fundraisers you tailor your message and play to the crowd. Everyone, including Obama, does it.
 
 
Sep 20, 2012
I understand that you think that you understand what you think that I said. But do you think that you understand what I think that I meant?
 
 
Sep 20, 2012
Scott's perspective is one of the interviewee that gets quoted out of context. For balance, what about the perspective of the interviewer (journalist) who has a fantastic quote within context that gets quashed after the fact by media handlers?
 
 
Sep 20, 2012
and yeah i have fantasized enough times of what it would be like to go on a political talk show to know atleast some quote trickery.

Outsmarting someone with editing power requires diligence and a deranged focus on your message.

quote validation is absolutely necessary if reporters wont act in good faith.

I used to watch the daily show with jon stewart. they would do interesting clips interviewing ppl, and obviously !$%*!$%* with their minds (crazy questions), and mismatching editing so they answered wrong questions. was absurd, and as long as the audience didnt care about them they found it funny. highly vindictive propaganda machine, that masquerades as real news.

its actually a beautiful piece of work. i love how colbert plays the part of a conservative, thereby making viewers think stewart is some kind of moderate and a real conservative is an outright radical extremist in comparison to colbert. its the kind of genius that adolf hitler could appreciate. especially since basically all uneducated democrats (and most partying college kids) think those shows on comedy central are legit.
 
 
Sep 20, 2012
The part I find most exquisite is that none of the Obama supporters (or Romney supporters) think this quote accurately describes them.

There IS a real problem with this issue in USA. Instead of acknowledging this, partisans on the left assume 1) Romney is out of touch and noone is a parasite 2) Romney believes they personally are a parasite for voting for Obama. Meanwhile they paid $30k in fed income taxes last year. Giving their ego ammo to say Romney is batsh!t crazy.

I would argue that atleast the top 1/3rd of obama voters dont fit the victimhood mentality, and atleast 1/3rd of Romney supporters are receiving welfare (i doubt they have same rate of victimhood ideology though).

there is an ideological divide. The woman saying she didnt have to worry about rent anymore, or getting gas in her car. If she took care of obama he would take care of her. That a voting age person could say that proves we have major issues with parasitism, and a large portion of it is squarely fed by democrat politicians in exchange for votes.

when the populace figures out they can vote themself $ (vote for candidates who give freebies), the republic is doomed. The choice is there, the only thing holding us back is moral fiber, which many dont have, as they vote based on what govt can do for them. JFK is rolling over in his grave.
 
 
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Sep 19, 2012
"[In my experience, the rich care more about the poor than the poor care about other poor people. When you're poor, you focus on your own problems, as you rightly should. When you're rich, human nature causes you to shift focus from your own needs, that have been met, ala Bill Gates, to how you can make the world better. When you're talking to your own people, as Romney was, it's understood that they all want to make the world better for the poor; they just have a different idea how to get there. (Please stop making me defend Republicans. It makes me feel dirty.) -- Scott]"

And dirty you should feel. If you actually bothered to look up the studies you'd find that the poor give more to charity than the rich as a percentage of their wealth. You'd realize that reducing taxes for the rich, complaining about "redistribution", and blaming the 47% for feeling entitled, is hardly likely to be the best recipe for helping the poor (unless you think laissez-faire capitalism was a success for the poor in the 19th century).

By your logic, we could look at history and reason that the aristocrats who owned all the land had only the peasantry's best interests in heart. If the King has a meeting with his nobles and says that he doesn't owe anything to these human cattle who should count themselves lucky that his gentry leave them relatively unmolested enough to eke out an existence...then perhaps we should take His Majesty the King*in context*, according to you.

[Did you really say the poor give more to charity as a percentage of income? You might want to fact check that. -- Scott]
 
 
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Sep 19, 2012
As a side-note, for a guy who doesn't want his opinions taken out of context, you sure do provide a lot of fodder in your blog posts. Whether I choose to assume you're an apologist for the Wall Street elite or a socialist redistribution apostle, I have material for either opinion in this one blog entry.

I have no idea what your politics are really, but I guess labels aren't really the most important qualification in our emergency backup leader anyway.

This is now officially the most I've ever been sucked into one of your comment boards. Dang.
 
 
Sep 19, 2012
Hahaha. I have no idea why c-i-r-c-u-m-s-t-a-n-c-e-s got turned into a curse word in my previous post.
 
 
Sep 19, 2012
[The third possibility is that when a person says the sky is blue he assumes you understand that sometimes it is cloudy, and at night it is dark. -- Scott]

Yes, because the the sky is frequently blue. Under what circumstances were Romney's remarks true?

[People who depend on government help are more likely to vote for the guy who they think will keep providing it. That's the general point. -- Scott]
 
 
-5 Rank Up Rank Down
Sep 19, 2012
[How about the context of a Republican fundraiser full of smart people who understand he was talking about campaign strategy? Do you think anyone in the room thought he was suggesting society should take grandma off the oxygen machine if she fails to get a job and pay some taxes? -- Scott]

Shameless apologetics for a guy who, in the company of some extremely wealthy people, promises to tax them less and tax the less fortunate more, and accuses the less fortunate group of lacking personality responsibility and feeling entitled to handouts from government. It was a stereotypical meeting of greed-worshipping, masters of the universe, and your stock line about context is wearing thin.
 
 
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Sep 19, 2012
EtherGnat: thank you for the reply "The Superpacs and 501(c)(4)s can't coordinate directly with the candidates though. Romney nor Obama can call them up and tell them they want to run $5 million worth of ads in Ohio on "X" issue."

So in a room filled with Super PAC donors/managers, in response to a question from a possible donor/manager, Romney tells them which market they don't need to worry about, but which group they should be focused on.... Seems like a direct coordination to me, but I'm not an elections official or federal prosecutor. I imagine the burden of proof to show direct coordination is higher than this though.
 
 
Sep 19, 2012
Scott, I just had a psychic flash. I saw you shaking your head while reading these comments, and saying, "You buy them books, and they eat the covers." Although I'm sure you predicted it (I know I did), what you got rather than comments to the point of your post (one of your best posts, by the way, even if you did quote the liberal Bible - do you ever read, say, the WSJ?), what you got instead was people defending their position on those two quotes (Romney and Obama) based on their political leanings. Some days must be tougher than others for you.

So rather than follow the sheeple, I'm going to comment on your point, not on those two statements.

Your point is valid, and I would tend to agree with you. The unspoken but related point is that the wall of separation between reporting the news and trying to make the news is becoming more and more thin. The line between editorializing and straight reporting is similarly becoming blurred.

Many consider the mainstream media to be left-leaning. I agree. But if you'd ask them, they'd deny it. However, they all grow up in the same environment, surrounded by like-thinking people. If you took a poll of newsrooms across the nation, you'd find that more than 90% of them are Democrats. It's hard to be objective when the only people you associate with think just like you do.

Former CBS correspondent Bernie Goldberg wrote an excellent book on this topic called "Bias." It makes the point clearly and explains a lot. Today, most journalists in major media come from one of a very few top journalism schools such as Columbia, CUNY and UC Berkeley, all among the most left-leaning schools in the nation. They grow up in that environment and come to think of it as mainstream opinion. They're the kind of people who mimic the famous statement attributed to the "New Yorker" film critic Pauline Kael following Richard Nixon's 1972 election: "I can't believe Nixon won. I don't know anyone who voted for him." (Before people jump on me, I know this quote can't be verified, but the "New Yorker" once said the actual quote was something like, "I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don’t know. They’re outside my ken. But sometimes when I’m in a theater I can feel them." Which is arguably worse.)

Scott's point is that making news is not the same as reporting news - but it's tough to tell the difference when journalists not only expose their bias in their reporting but use context and placement to make a person who said one thing seem to mean another.

But the other side of that coin is how people perceive such statements based on their personal bias. Take a look at how much discussion on this blog centered not on Scott's point, but on the two quotes themselves. I think a good follow-on post would be to discuss how people read into quotes what they want to hear from them.

In any case, good post, Scott. Kudos.







 
 
+5 Rank Up Rank Down
Sep 19, 2012
Here's a very detailed account of an actual interview by a WSJ reporter, and the ensuing smear job that appeared in the paper. After reading this, I also discount any quotes appearing in the news:

http://www.fourmilab.ch/autofile/www/chapter2_99.html
 
 
Sep 19, 2012
whtllnew: But quote approval was the main point of Scotts post. This whole Romney thing started out as a bit of supporting detail. Everyone seems to be forgetting that.

But it's a horrible example. There are literally dozens if not hundreds of examples Mr. Adams could have used where Romney has legitimately been taken out of context. But in this instance neither Romney's statements nor the context have been misportrayed.

Mr. Adams is defending his choice. He can correct me if I'm wrong but my understanding of his reasoning is that because it may have been effective in his goal of getting money from rich people it was justified. I will concede it may have been effective in that respect. The only way I can see that could make it acceptable in a larger sense though is if you find it acceptable for a leader to do and say anything to achieve their goals.

While Machiavelli might approve I do not.

But yes, as to the larger issue of quote approval I have little comment. In a perfect world people would speak candidly, writers would convey those thoughts fairly, and people would listen wisely. This is not, however, a perfect world.
 
 
 
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