Here's How Not to Use Quotation Marks


Wait, is that Sally Draper?

A very minor detail in the scheme of this great thing called life, but I stumbled upon a case study in how modern journalism can become a game of telephone. First, there was this section in the New York Times' story on the Kochtopus in Wisconsin:

Even before the new governor was sworn in last month, executives from the Koch-backed group had worked behind the scenes to try to encourage a union showdown, Mr. Phillips said in an interview on Monday.

State governments have gone into the red, he said, in part because of the excessively generous pay and benefits that unions have been able to negotiate for teachers, police, firefighters and other state and local employees.

"We thought it was important to do," Mr. Phillips said, adding that his group is already working with activists and state officials in Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania to urge them to take similar steps to curtail union benefits or give public employees the power to opt out of unions entirely.

There is only one quote there, seven words long, and we have to take the reporter's word for it that the other paraphrasing is accurate. John Hinderaker at Power Line expressed doubts on this front–regarding the "union showdown" bit, Hinderaker wrote, "Phillips vehemently denies saying any such thing."

Still, we have this seven-word quote in a three-graf linkage exercise, so writing about it should be straightforward. Yet over at Think Progress, as Hinderaker points out, Phillips' quote is actually extended:

Tim Phillips, a former lobbying partner to Jack Abramoff and current president of Americans for Prosperity, a front financed by David Koch, told the New York Times that Koch operatives "had worked behind the scenes to try to encourage a union showdown."

Where'd you get the quote from, Tim?

And now today the quote was extended still further by syndicated L.A. Times columnist Tim Rutten, who ironically was the paper's longtime media critic:

In fact, as Tim Phillips, head of Americans for Prosperity, a group created and funded by the Koch brothers to the tune of $40 million last year, told the paper, "even before the new governor was sworn in last month, executives from the Koch-backed group had worked behind the scenes to try to encourage a union showdown."

Were Koch executives really working behind the scenes with Gov. Walker to precipitate a showdown with unions? Who knows! Sounds vaguely plausible, if conspiratorial. But I do know this–Tim Phillips did not say the words Tim Rutten says he said. And Rutten really, really ought to know better.

NEXT: If Obama Is Right, How Can State Bans on Gay Marriage Be Constitutional?

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. “I thought it was important to do,” Tim Rutten said, exiting the sheep.

    1. I’m not an “it.” I’m a “he.”

      1. I connot, in good conscience, support marriage that is not between a ram and a woman.

    2. What’s worse? Exiting sheep or entering them?

  2. And Rutten really, really ought to know better.

    He does know better. He just doesn’t care, since it gets in the way of the narrative.

    “It’s OK when we do it.” Etc., etc.

  3. NYT reports that a Reason writer says, “Hitler was right to eat children” in a parody of a mock example

    Controversy enswirls, but review of Reason does show that the words “Hitler”; “eats” and “children” have appeared.
    draw your own conclusions.

  4. This reminds me of an article I read in Skeptic magazine about Whitley Strieber. The back cover of his book communion has what appears to be a favorable quote from a book review about this work of “nonfiction”. BUT it was take out of context. The full qoute was something to the effect that IF his account is true it would turn everything we know on its head or some such [I am paraphrasing heavilly – it has been a while since I read the article] But what he did was take away the “If” part of the quote.

  5. I think it’s important to note that Matt Welch is admittedly in the pocket of the Koch brothers. In an article today he wrote, “Koch executives…” he then went on to add the following: are my masters and they are kind masters. They take care of me and pay me millions of dollars so long as I spread misinformation about the Obama administration and help them break up the unions….and yes! I do mean the private unions too!

    1. A shill for Big Koch?.

  6. Knowing better and caring are two entirely different things. I’m sure he knew better but the narrative need to fit his story and position and he didn’t care.

    Attributing that malice that which can be attributed to ignorance is an axiom that no longer holds true in journalism.

    1. lets try “Attributing to malice…”

  7. ThinkProgress and Tim Rutten obviously know that quoting a third party’s paraphrase is the same as quoting a primary source. They’re just trying to get as accurate as possible by increasing available quotable material.

  8. cute pic w the kids

  9. i don’t think it’s a matter of fitting Tim Rutten’s anti-taxpayer narrative, i just think Tim Rutten is a lazy piece of shit.

  10. “But I do know this?Tim Phillips did not say the words Tim Rutten says he said.”

    No, you know that Tim Phillips says he did not say the words Tim Rutten says he said, unless you have personal knowledge of what took place during the interview. Do you?

    1. Vanneman, if you’re going to go that far, Matt doesn’t know that Tim Phillips says that he didn’t say that words that Tim Rutten falsely claims that the New York Times says Tim Phillips says.

      If the LA Times’s Rutten actually has personal knowledge of what Tim Phillips said in an interview with a different newspaper, he should say so instead of pretending like he’s quoting the other story.

      1. Film critics are in it for the emotional satisfaction, not the intellectual satisfaction.

  11. Hey Vanneman . . . Rutten writes for the L.A. Times. Phillips was interviewed by the NY Times. Rutten is using and extending the NY Times quote. Jackass.

  12. No, you know that Tim Phillips says he did not say the words Tim Rutten says he said,

    We also know that the writer of the original article NYT articles knows that Phillips did not say those words, because that writer actually talked to him, knows what he said, and did not quote what he said, but only paraphrased it. Ergo, Phillips did not say it.

    1. How do you know what you cannot know if you weren’t there?

  13. Journalistic ethics must only be applied on non-liberals.

    Because we all know liberals mean well, and that all that counts.

    And besides, in this fight, the ends justify the means.

    Even if that means committing libel.

  14. That’s as bad as adding excessive ellipses to link together any string of words you want. For example, here’s a quote from Obama’s most recent state of the union:


    1. That bastard!

      1. now there’s proof.

    2. It helps if you mentally replace the ellipses with “uh, uhmm”.

  15. Reminds me of a great Arrested Development joke.

    GOB, being hounded by a reporter: “And don’t go back and edit the video to make it look like I’m screaming –”

    Cut to GOB, on the local news, screaming: “I killed Earl Milford!”

    1. Heh. I was thinking of starting to call SugarFree Bland.

      1. That’s as Ann as the nose on Plain’s face.

        1. You’ve met her. You’ve met her and met her and met her. You let her in! That’s her in the kitchen.

  16. The only interesting thing is that the NYT even called Tim Phillips at all before attributing to him in paraphrase soething that was handed to the NYT by the Democratic party as the thing that Phillips was supposed to say.

  17. The other type of quoting I love is the pointless sneer quote. The other day my RSS reader picked up a BBC story on the earthquake in New Zealand that was headlined:

    ‘Deaths’ after New Zealand quake

    The next bulletin had this headline:

    “Devastation” in quake-hit Christchurch

    At least this time, the quoting is more defensible, but I find it interesting that here the double-quotes got used, while in the first case the single-quotes got used.

  18. Maybe there is some truth to the butterfly effect, at least in hack journalism.

  19. Matt – And this has ever been a problem for Rutten – ever? And, anyway, it must be accurate, due to the 4 or 5, I forget just how many, layers of editing at your old home (I tend to think that Rutten’s editor is the “send” key.)

  20. The photo embedded in this article does not have a name. Who is it? The author, or one of the several people mentioned in the article? As long as we are criticizing ambiguity.

  21. You guys get a bonus every time you mention a “Koch”?

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.