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.

: 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 19, 2012
No amount of context will make Romney's speech true or anything other than hateful.

""There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right? There are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, 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. That that's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what. .... These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of lower taxes doesn't connect. So he'll be out there talking about tax cuts for the rich. I mean, that's what they sell every four years.

"And so my job is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."

Yes, 47% of people pay no income tax, but most pay other taxes--payroll taxes, sales tax, state income tax, etc.. Many are retirees. Many are working and contributing to society, they just have no liability due to deductions; many of which were instituted or expanded by Republicans. Just because you pay no income tax doesn't mean you're a victim, or feel entitled to anything, or want anybody to care for you. This 47% didn't even make the rules. What are you supposed to do--send a check to the IRS anyway if the rules say you don't owe anything?

It's also a ridiculous notion to say that none of these people are going to vote for Romney. If you look at the demographics that make up that 47%, it's likely over 40% of them will be (or would have been) voting for Romney. In fact it's mostly Republican states that benefit from government spending, while Democrat states tend to pay more than they receive in aid. Obviously benefiting from government aid does not preclude one from voting for a party that promises to gut government spending (not that they ever do, but they promise it).

By all means watch the entire speech, and tell me what context makes his remarks OK. The entire speech was full of fail.

[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]
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."

Partially right. I'd go with you on the quote being taken out of context. I wouldn't go with you on it being a smart campaign strategy.]

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

Partially right. I'd go with you on the quote being taken out of context. I wouldn't go with you on it being a smart campaign strategy. The quote/speech was a good fundraising strategy for prying money out of the donors who were there. It stopped being a good strategy when the speech jumped the fence and headed out into the rest of the world.

(Also there's the part where some that don't pay income tax include retirees and other folks that are polled as voting for Romney. But I doubt that will change any minds. Something something, Rohrschach Test, etc.)
Sep 19, 2012
I quite agree with you, Scott, but would like to add that quote approval is a natural reaction to today's society and media. No company or famous person wants to be at the center of a media firestorm and they have a right to defend themselves against such a fate, especially in cases like the ones you mention where the quote was manufactured or forced. In fact, this is one of those ideas you never think about before but, once the it comes along, you say 'Of course! Why weren't we/they doing that all along!'.
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