Media

Here's How Not to Use Quotation Marks

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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.