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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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+7 Rank Up Rank Down
Sep 19, 2012
Since Scott did actually reply to my first post, I guess I should respond to that point he made.

["I'm sure you understand that he was making a gross generality that people who depend on government support are going to vote for the person most likely to deliver it."]

Yes, I do understand that. But the fact is that he went beyond that. He wasn't just saying that they depend on government so they're going to vote for Obama (which other commenters have already pointed out is untrue, so I'll ignore it), he was also making a value judgment against them. He said that they see themselves as victims, feel entitled to everything from government, and take no responsibility for themselves. He said that. I didn't invent it.

And he didn't say he was just talking about the unemployed, or the working poor, or seniors, and neither did he exempt any of those groups. He made no distinction between people who paid into the system for years and are now collecting retirement insurance or unemployment, and people who have been living off the system their whole adult lives. He didn't simply forget to add "BOCTAOE," he flippantly disparaged half the people he claims to want to lead because it puts them on the other side of a political divide that he can exploit in front of his rich donors.

Inequality is the singular issue of our day, and from the vantage point of himself and those wealthy donors, there's a value judgment they make, seeing themselves as wonderful achievers, and the peasants as lazy moochers. It makes them feel better about themselves, and better about not paying for programs that would help the poor.

But the poor don't want to live off entitlements. Many of these people have been working hard at two or more low-paying jobs without benefits for years because they couldn't afford the education they needed in order to do something better. All they want is the opportunity to make something better of themselves.

Unfortunately, opportunity today is in large part a function of how much money you were born into. The fact that Romney doesn't get that tells you something about the sort of President he would be - a President for the 1%. He's going to cut your taxes, Scott (and mine too if I'm being honest), and then he's going to cut the programs that the poor depend on, but he's not going to do a thing to help them get out of poverty. Because health care and education ARE the path out of poverty. Those shouldn't be seen as entitlements, but prudent investments in our fellow citizens. Yet according to Romney, if you can't afford it yourself, and you can't borrow the money from your parents, then you're out of luck.

[Is it your experience that people who are poor blame themselves? That's a serious question. -- Scott]
 
 
Sep 19, 2012
@phoen1x

[I'm all for quote approval, and you're right on that point. I voted thumbs down though because I agree with what other people are saying - that Romney made the statistical mistake of equating the 47% with the % of population who votes for Obama - some of the poorest states are strongly Republican (disclaimer: I'm voting for Obama) :) I would've liked to see him use a more accurate statistic (for example use only adults >18 in this statistic)]

...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.
 
 
-1 Rank Up Rank Down
Sep 19, 2012
I'm all for quote approval, and you're right on that point. I voted thumbs down though because I agree with what other people are saying - that Romney made the statistical mistake of equating the 47% with the % of population who votes for Obama - some of the poorest states are strongly Republican (disclaimer: I'm voting for Obama) :) I would've liked to see him use a more accurate statistic (for example use only adults >18 in this statistic)
 
 
Sep 19, 2012
my2k: "If I understood the Supreme Court's decision about campaign finance laws correctly rich individuals including corporations can spend whatever they want to say whatever they want, but they may not coordinate with the candidate."

Rich individuals and corporations can coordinate with candidates all they like. They can donate money directly to candidates within contribution guidelines. They can also contribute tens of millions of dollars to Superpacs and 501(c)(4)s to do whatever they like.

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.

Of course this is a somewhat meaningless protection, because casual coordination most definitely occurs. Whether it's a whispered word from an aide over drinks in a deliberate attempt to work around the restrictions or something as innocent as a candidate saying in a speech, "We have to get the word out about this..." it happens.

A major goal of these organizations is to get one politician or group elected. It's not that hard to read between the lines and help them out whether there's official coordination or not.
 
 
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]

Let's be careful how we characterize what was said. Romney says there are 47% "who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it."

He is scaring his audience by making it seem like the enemy is huge (almost a majority) and unethical (entitled, don't pay taxes). This is standard a propaganda technique. The truth of the statements are irrelevant to getting the emotional response from his audience.


 
 
-2 Rank Up Rank Down
Sep 19, 2012
Considering the context of Romney's remarks as being for intelligent rich folks to direct campaign strategy might make the comments sound less condescending, but then doesn't that makes them illegal? If I understood the Supreme Court’s decision about campaign finance laws correctly rich individuals including corporations can spend whatever they want to say whatever they want, but they may not coordinate with the candidate. Why are we only talking about these remarks as thoughtless rather than as illegal? Maybe someone who understands those decisions could clarify this for me.
 
 
Sep 19, 2012
Even taken in context, Romney's quote doesn't show much understanding of the electorate. He seems to equate the 47% (who only pay social security and sales tax) with people who are dependent on the government and who would not vote for him. Actually, some states with the highest proportion of non-income tax paying people are stanch Republicans. Most of the 47% either have low paying jobs or are retired, rather than living on welfare.
 
 
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Sep 19, 2012
I'm at work now, so can't be as long-winded, but I want to make it clear that I think I understand Scott's point pretty well. It's the reason why I thought that despite the artlessness of it, Romney's quotes about "I like firing people" and "corporations are people, my friend" didn't really reveal anything about Romney other than the ability of reporters to take his words out of context. So I guess my view is that Scott's wider point about quotes is correct, but it's not at play here.

Romney's words, not as a soundbite, but in their entirety, are what was so offensive. And it's why I see this incident as so much more disqualifying to his candidacy than anything we've heard (from him, at least) up until this point. And the context, talking about the selfishness, irresponsibility, and self-victimhood of people who could never afford to attend that fundraiser, doesn't help. He's talking to rich people who want him to lower their taxes, and he wants to make them feel good about contributing less to a society that has grown substantially more unequal. That's the context, and it's not because the audience changed that makes it offensive. It's offensive because it's an offensive point of view that he actually holds.

If you're in front of a group of white supremacists droning on about the laziness and worthlessness of black people, and someone records it and puts it in front of a wider audience, you don't get to blame the person who put it in front of a wider audience for the offense that was taken. Those words are what were offensive, and the fact that you were in a different setting does not mitigate them at all.
 
 
Sep 19, 2012
jlamp8: "I know both parties are diametrically opposed"

I hate this misconception. The fact is on the full political spectrum Republicans and Democrats are right next to each other. So much so that frequently I can't tell them apart. Oh sure, there are a few differences, but many of those are little more than political theater.

We're Americans. It's not good vs. evil. We're not diametrically opposed. We're a group of people who all love our country, with largely similar beliefs. Where we disagree we hopefully come to compromise; or at least continue to respect each other when we lose a battle here and there.

As long as we're fighting among ourselves we're less likely to pay attention to what's really going on.
 
 
Sep 19, 2012
@Scott

[Please stop making me defend Republicans. It makes me feel dirty.]

You are a self described moderate who believes a Romney presidency would be more or less as good as the Obama presidency right? At least thats how I interpret the fact that you came to no clear 'Pick this guy' conclusion in your recent 'Picking a President' blog. So why would you feel dirty defending a Republican when confronting a sea of anti-Republican comments?
 
 
Sep 19, 2012
Breaking news, Dilbert Creator Scott Adams wants nuclear war with Ireland because he doesn't like them very much, plans to celebrate the oncoming nuclear winter by raping leprechauns because that's the natural thing to do.

We'll have more at 11.

 
 
+4 Rank Up Rank Down
Sep 19, 2012
One thing is evident, there are people who will vote republican no matter what and there are people who will vote democrat no matter what. Then there are the rest. How this breaks out I don't know but would be interesting to find out. Let's use high partisanship for our original estimate and say that only 10 % are in the middle while each side has 45 % of the vote locked up. It may not work this way for the popular vote but it seems pretty close to how the electoral vote breaks out. It would seem the 10 % in the middle hold the real power. The numbers are probably split equally 33-33-33 but it really doesn't matter what the actual numbers are, we know for a fact that it is the voters who are not aligned with a specific party that make the difference.

I propose an experiment for the centrists. Vote how you think is best in the Senate and Presidential election. The change comes in the House of Representatives.

Here is my plan, and please identify any issues you may see with it.
Scott posts the 20 (or more, I'm not sure voting out all incumbents wouldn't be the best idea) most inflexible representatives from each party. We all vote on what to use as the most valid way of measuring partisanship. Personally I know that every representative's voting history is out on the record. We take the 20 Republicans and 20 Democrats who voted along party lines over the past 2 years and we vote them out. The center has the power we can sway the vote. I know from reviewing some of the voting records that there are reps who have voted 95 % of the time with their Party, and then have abstained on the other 5 % of the votes. This means they apparently never voted for a proposal from the other party. I know both parties are diametrically opposed, but your meaning to tell me that you don't have at least one or two things that you agree were a good idea from the other party? How did some of your party members vote less partisanly (is that a word)?

It seems to me from reading this blog that the biggest problem currently in Congress is the lack of compromise. Let's send a message letting them know that we who think, think they are idiots. This would work if we tell them why we are voting out the incumbents. Or hell, like I said before let's vote them all out.
 
 
Sep 19, 2012
There are two possibilities here.

One is that Romney actually believed his remarks, which makes him ignorant and more than a little hateful.

The second is that he *knew* what he was saying to be untrue, but said it anyway in order to stoke the fear and paranoia of rich people he wanted money from. In this case he's hateful, manipulative, and stupid for not realizing there was no way his comments would remain private in this day and age.

[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]
 
 
Sep 19, 2012
"I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."

This quote sounds contemptuous out of context because it was perfectly contemptuous in context.

His campaign strategy is to explain to wealthy donors just how much he despises the poor. You can take this quote out of context to make it sound like he despises the poor, because when you hear the ENTIRE thing, it is clear just how much he despises the poor.

[It only sounds bad if you assume he means it as an absolute, as in every single poor person is suffering from nothing but a bad attitude. No one in the room thought of it that way. -- Scott]

 
 
Sep 19, 2012
Me: "By all means watch the entire speech, and tell me what context makes his remarks OK."

Scott Adams: "How about the context of a Republican fundraiser full of smart people who understand he was talking about campaign strategy?"

I think that context explains *why* he made the remarks, but I don't think it in any way excuses the remarks. By all means play to your audience, that's politics. But at the end of the day you're still responsible for the things you say.

I know you've had statements taken out of context and it's a sore point for you, and in those cases I agree (as do I think most of your blog readers) that you were treated unfairly. I don't think that's the case with Romney. The media coverage has accurately portray what Romney said and the context in which he was speaking. The fact Romney was hoping the 47% of America that are "victims" wouldn't hear his remarks doesn't make it OK.

Scott Adams: "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?"

No, I don't. What I think is that there is a tremendous amount of cognitive dissonance. Many people--ironically enough many among the 47%--think of the 47% just as Romney attempted to portray them. Victims, moochers, welfare recipients, homeless people, drug users, whatever--completely non-contributing members of society. Oh, but not the veterans. Not grandma baking cookies. Not the college student working to pay for his classes. Not the single dad of two working two jobs so he can make his mortgage payments.

The fact is groups like this make up a huge portion of that 47%, but for people like that they're always the exception. Of course I didn't mean *them*, I meant the rest of the parasites.
 
 
Sep 19, 2012
i find it hard to believe romney thinks the 47% who pay no fed income tax are all democrat voters.

that level of stupidity combined with his level of wealth acquisition (plus knowledge of PR tactics/strategies) does not make any sense.

therefore i take his statement as a very cynical view of the rich and his ability to manipulate them and their biases.

in any event, he has as much disdain for those who WONT vote for him as obama who says conservatives bitterly cling to god and guns, and live in fly over country. america will not get a president for the people any time soon. the victor SHOULD care about all americans, even if he reluctantly feels the country needs to move in different direction in spite of their wishes.

i feel both these candidates would revel in sticking it to those who wont vote for them. thats a lack of character in my book.
 
 
Sep 19, 2012
Here's an exact illustration of what Scott means: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/9553624/Clint-Eastwood-mocks-dumb-Republican-invite-to-convention.html

The headline says Clint Eastwood is accusing the people who invited him to address the convention were 'dumb', but it's clear from the story that he's not saying that, he's being slightly self-deprecatory.
 
 
Sep 19, 2012
"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."

Taken in context it sounds exactly like a rich guy saying he doesn't care about the poor. And if the video hadn't been taken, it was also definitely smart campaigning, as I'm sure all the 50K per plate wealthy donors were lapping it up no matter whether they 'understood' his exact meaning or not.

[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)
 
 
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Sep 19, 2012
@whtllnew

"What about being a smart campaign strategy in its proper context as Scott said?"

If the context is fundraising, it was smart. If the context is campaign, it was not smart. It's like system design. You can design a smart subsystem that doesn't end up working so well in the larger system. Fundraising is a subsystem of campaigning. I think Scott combined two levels in that paragraph that should be separated. At first he mentioned that it was the contents of a speech at a fundraiser (fundraising context), then describes it as a campaign message focusing on undecided voters (campaign context) If he's saying that it's smart for the fundraising/subsystem context, I agree. If he's saying that it's a smart campaign/system context, I disagree.

Splitting hairs, etc. I wouldn't expect Scott to put together a spec tree before writing a blog post.
 
 
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Sep 19, 2012
Scott, you may be right about manufactured quotes and quotes taken out of context, but you're so very wrong on the 47% thing from Romney. He doesn't just say that the 47% aren't going to vote for him so he's not going to go after their votes, he says these people view themselves as victims, take no responsibility for their own lives, feel like they're entitled to everything from government, and pay no taxes. That's not taking things out of context. It does not matter what the question is, he just wrote off 47% of Americans as lazy greedy moochers.

I'm not sure what's more concerning in his statement, the derision or the ignorance. He doesn't just not care about the poor, which would be bad enough. He thinks they're actually worthless people.

[See how you morphed his quote from a simple statement of campaign strategy to "He thinks they're worthless people"? I'm sure you understand that he was making a gross generality that people who depend on government support are going to vote for the person most likely to deliver it. -- Scott]

I didn't just read an article about the video and latch onto a soundbite. I watched the video, from the question being asked through his complete answer. Your interpretation - that he simply isn't going after their votes - is not the entirety of what he actually said.

More concerning to me though, is that he's spouting a pernicious myth that some wealthy people tell themselves when they justify not wanting to help the poor. Because after all, it's a lot easier to trample on people if you think they deserve it. I can see how that attitude might've helped him in his days in private equity.

But since he's Mormon, I had assumed that Romney wasn't really so callous towards the poor. That's not their normal way. Despite his clumsy words and apparent arrogance, I really did give him the benefit of the doubt. But that vanished when I watched this video. This is no slip, this was a peek at his heart. And now his own campaign admits he was "on message" when he said it.

Romney just wrote off students, seniors, and the working poor as some sort of parasites who think they can get something from the government for nothing. He wrote off people who just want a shot to get back in the game, and are receiving the unemployment insurance they paid into while they were working. Many Americans got hurt during the recession, but Americans believe in work more than almost any society on Earth today. There probably are some people who just want to find ways to live off the system. But to imagine that every person who votes for Obama falls into that category is unbelievably crass and ridiculously myopic.

I'll admit that I was already convinced that Romney was not going to get my vote, but this is the first time I truly thought he was a bad person. I pay taxes today, but during college and immediately after, it took a couple years before I made enough not to qualify for the EITC. So I may not be one of his 47% today, but I take personal umbrage knowing he would have grouped me in with them only a few years ago. Maybe YOU should watch the entire video and decide if context makes a difference.

[Your interpretation is why in my earlier blogging days I often inserted BOCTAOE (But of course there are obvious exceptions) at the end of my posts. No thinking person believes Romney meant his comment as universal truth. He's not saying coma patients need to get a job. -- Scott]
 
 
 
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