While shopping recently, I was reminded of my work.
Yes, I’m a sick puppy and I need help. I’ll get right on that.
While looking for jewelry-making supplies, I found bracelet tags with quotes on them, one more appropriate for me than others—“Well-behaved women rarely make history”—with the quote attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt.
Silly jewelry-supply company.
Though it does sound like something Mrs. Roosevelt would have said (a little more likely than Marilyn Monroe or Anne Boleyn, also reported to have said it), it wasn’t her.
Ulrich, now a Pulitzer Prize winner for A Midwife’s Tale and a history professor at Harvard, later wrote a book based on the quote which since 1976 has shown up on bumper stickers, t-shirts … and now jewelry supplies, though wrongly attributed.
We run into misattributed quotes all the time on the Voices page, most often from the founding fathers, which is why I have sites like Quote Investigator and Monticello.org bookmarked on my work and home computers. As in life, if a quote sounds too good to be true, it usually isn’t.
Benjamin Franklin is connected to many quotes he didn’t originate, partly due to his appropriating, without attribution, pithy sayings for Poor Richard’s Almanack. Thomas Jefferson is so prolific in his quotes that apparently he’s still making them nearly 200 years after his death.
But it’s not just the founding fathers who have words put in their mouths, as that bracelet tag shows. One of the most misattributed personalities is Mark Twain, who said plenty of clever things of his own.
Yet there are quotes he just didn’t say, and many where the provenance is uncertain, or where he quoted someone else and that suddenly became a Mark Twain saying.
Usually when we run into quotes that are misattributed, we cut them out unless they’re integral to the point of a letter; in that case we may hedge the quote’s attribution to be safe, or throw the letter out entirely.
However, we run into not just misattributed quotes, but also outright misquotes. Sometimes it’s a simple transcription error, but more often, it’s words dropped without the elisions noted, or paraphrases (sometimes not even true to the quote) with quotation marks around them.
I call that “Attack of the air quotes.”
You’ve seen those in letters and columns before, with quotes around certain words and phrases, and you can almost picture the writer, hands in the air a la Dr. Evil, making air quotes to show his disdain for something with which he clearly doesn’t agree.
I came across one last week that, when I saw the quote, I was pretty sure that that person had not actually said it as it was not in the least bit lawyerly:
“The suit was filed because Hobby Lobby doesn’t want their employees to use any form of birth control.”
The tone of that “quote” really doesn’t sound like Hillary Clinton, an attorney at Rose Law Firm in Little Rock when Bill was Arkansas governor, as well as a political wife and politician herself.
I checked to make sure, and found the actual quote:
“It’s very troubling that a salesclerk at Hobby Lobby who needs contraception, which is pretty expensive, is not going to get that service through her employer’s health-care plan because her employer doesn’t think she should be using contraception.”
Hmmm. I could be wrong, but it looks like that first quote isn’t a quote from Clinton at all.
Naw, I’m not wrong on that. It was an oversimplified and inaccurate paraphrase cloaked in quotation marks, and it wasn’t the first time I’d seen something like that … nor will it likely be the last.
Writers at the Democrat-Gazette, including myself and my boss, Paul Greenberg, are also frequently misquoted or have words put in our mouths (chocolate only, please) … unfortunately no one has tried to make us look more brilliant than we actually are (why not???).
If people will so happily misquote us, why would we think they wouldn’t do the same to someone else?
I use the same rules on quotes for letter-writers as I do for the columnists: Quotes must be accurate and correctly attributed.
One of the most important rules in journalism is to get the quotes right. I worked in broadcast for a while, so I know how to listen for soundbites.
But if you’re re-editing the quote to fit the story you want to tell, that’s not truth as far as I’m concerned. We can’t print entire transcripts in the text of stories, so writers must be extra-vigilant to avoid purposely taking something out of context or editing too selectively.
There is a school of journalistic thought that it’s OK to “clean up” quotes, which for some includes correcting grammar, paraphrasing entire sections but retaining the quotation marks, or taking words out but not indicating it. I think that’s a questionable approach that’s just asking for a lawsuit.
For the Voices page, “enhancements” (see what I did there?) of quotes, such as adding your own thoughts or descriptors to make them fit your point, won’t fly. You can add something in brackets if absolutely necessary to make it clear what the speaker is referring to, but that’s about it.
Generally, just give us the quote as it should be and nobody gets hurt.