I was shocked to read that Jonah Lehrer had quit his job at the New Yorker, after admitting that he fabricated some quotations from Bob Dylan in his recent book Imagine: How Creativity Works. I was shocked because what Lehrer did is consistent with the standard behavior of journalists, though perhaps not with the official story of what this behavior is supposed to be like. But the actual practice, in which journalists often put between quotation marks whatever representation of a source's opinions they feel that their narrative needs, was validated by judicial decision in a famous case involving another New Yorker writer 25 years ago — someone who is still on the magazine's staff.
Lehrer was challenged on his Dylan quotes by Michael C. Moynihan, who discusses the process in "Jonah Lehrer's Deceptions", The Tablet 7/30/2012:
I asked Lehrer about seven Bob Dylan quotes in the chapter—three of which aren’t detectable anywhere else, at least not in the forms in which they appear in the book; three others of which include portions of real Dylan quotes; and one that is dramatically removed from its original context to conform to the narrative of Imagine. […]
I was first troubled by Lehrer’s handling of a rather well-known Dylan remark, recounted in countless biographies and websites. Lehrer writes, “Whenever Dylan read about himself in the newspaper, he made the same observation: ‘God, I’m glad I’m not me,’ he said. ‘I’m glad I’m not that.’ ” But in his classic documentary of Dylan’s 1965 tour of the United Kingdom, Dont Look Back, D.A. Pennebaker’s camera catches the singer peering at a newspaper story about a recent concert and muttering, “God, I’m glad I’m not me.” Where the utterance used by Lehrer—“I’m glad I’m not that”—comes from is unknown, as there is no verifiable reference to Dylan ever saying this. […]
But then other, more troubling anomalies began to emerge. In another quote mined from Dont Look Back, in which Dylan is asked by a pestering Time magazine journalist about the inspiration for his songs, Lehrer quotes Dylan as saying: “I just write them. There’s no great message. Stop asking me to explain.” The last sentence sharpens and simplifies Lehrer’s point—that Dylan’s brilliance isn’t easily explicable. But it doesn’t appear in Dont Look Back. […]
I did manage to locate some of the unfootnoted material. Here is Lehrer, again, quoting Dylan on the supposedly chaotic process of writing “Like a Rolling Stone”: “ ‘I don’t think a song like ‘Rolling Stone’ could have been done any other way,’ Dylan insisted. ‘You can’t sit down and write that consciously. … What are you gonna do, chart it out?’ ” But this is actually comprised of two quotes, grafted together from two separate interviews: one conducted in 1984, in which Dylan discusses the process of recording (not writing) the song, and one from 1976, which doesn’t specifically mention “Like a Rolling Stone.”
Assuming that Moynihan is completely right about this stuff, how serious is it?
From occasional personal experience, I've learned that after being interviewed for a newspaper or magazine story, I can usually count on being quoted as saying things that I'm pretty sure that I never said. And seven or eight years ago, when large amounts of audio and transcripts began to appear on the web, I would occasionally have reason to compare the quotes that appeared in a story with a recording or transcript of the interview (or press conference or whatever) that the quotes came from. Despite my native cynicism, I was suprised to learn how little relationship there generally is between what people say, even in recorded material easily available to the public, and what they're quoted as saying in the media.
For some examples, see:
"What did Rasheed say?", 6/23/2005; "Ipsissima vox Rasheedi", 6/24/2005; "Ritual questions, ritual answers", 6/25/2005; "Down with journalists!", 6/27/2005; "Bringing journalism into the 21st century", 6/30/2005; "More comments on quotes", 7/1/2005; "Linguists beware", 7/9/2005; "Quotes from journalistic sources: unsafe at any speed", 7/9/2005; "'Quotations' with a word error rate of 40-60% and more", 7/30/2005; "This time it matters", 8/13/2005; "'Approximate' quotations can undermine readers' trust in the times", 8/27/2005.
After this flurry of blog-post reactions, I mostly gave up posting on the topic of journalistic unquotations, since I was starting to feel like a crank. It was clear that the practices that bothered me were standard ones, and working journalists who wrote to me about some of the posts were surprised and hurt that I should object to them. I tried to limit my subsequent posts on the topic to cases where the fabrications were relevant to some linguistic point, or involved "audio photoshopping", or were especially consequential for some other reason:
"Imaginary debates and stereotypical roles", 5/3/2006; "Journalists' quotations: unsafe in any mood", 5/24/2007; "In president, out president, fake president", 12/5/2008; "Audio photoshopping at NPR", 5/31/2007; "Filled pauses and faked audio", 12/28/2008; "More (dis)fluency and (in)coherence", 12/31/2008; "Egregious fabrication of quotes at the Sunday Times?", 1/29/2010.
So the only thing about the Lehrer incident that surprised me is that anyone felt that Lehrer's inventions were such a big deal that he was forced to resign. Is the difference just that Bob Dylan's exact words are a matter of scriptural reverence to some people? Why else would the reaction in this case be so different from the reaction to the famous case involving Janet Malcolm and Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson?
I've been reluctant to post about the Malcolm/Masson case in the past, because the issues are complex and the documentation is voluminous. The basic background, as Wikipedia explains, is that
Articles published in The New Yorker, and in Malcolm's subsequent book In The Freud Archives, triggered a $10 million legal challenge by psychoanalyst Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, former project director for the Freud Archives. In his 1984 lawsuit, Masson claimed that Malcolm had libelled him by fabricating quotations attributed to him; these quotes, Masson contended, had brought him into disrepute.
When the case finally went to trial, Masson lost — essentially, as I understand it, on free speech grounds. Masson was a public figure, and Malcolm could not be proved to have made stuff up out of actual malice. But I can't read the decisions in the case without coming to the conclusion that she did make stuff up — and her inventions seem to have been more numerous, and much more consequential, than Lehrer's.
The 1989 decision by the United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit (881 F.2d 1452) considers eight instances of fabricated or misleadingly edited quotations. You can read the court's summary of the details in the section of the decision under the heading "The Challenged Quotations". Here's the first one:
Malcolm quoted Masson as stating that he changed his middle name from Lloyd to Moussaieff because "it sounded better." This statement does not appear in tape-recorded interviews. On the tape recordings, Masson states that he changed his middle name to Moussaieff because, inter alia, he "just liked it."
The district court stated that it could "see little difference between Masson's own words and those attributed to him by Malcolm." Accordingly, the district court held that the evidence Masson presented showing a discrepancy between his statements on the tape and those attributed to him in the article was "not sufficient to raise a triable question of fact on the issue of actual malice."
We agree with the district court's observation. We cannot perceive any substantive difference between the phrases "it sounded better" and "[I] just liked it." Thus, although Malcolm did not quote Masson verbatum, the words attributed to him did not alter the substantive content of his statement. The district court did not err in granting summary judgment against Masson concerning the words "it sounded better."
Here's the second one:
Malcolm quotes Masson as stating, in discussing an affair with a graduate student:
She [the graduate student] said, "Well, it is very nice sleeping with you in your room, but you're the kind of person who should never leave the room–you're just a social embarrassment anywhere else, though you do fine in your own room." And, you know, in their way, if not in so many words, Eissler and Anna Freud told me the same thing. They like me well enough "in my own room." They loved to hear from me what creeps and dolts analysts are. I was like an intellectual gigolo–you get your pleasure from him, but you don't take him out in public. (emphasis added).
The italicized portion of the above quote is not in the tape-recordings. It does appear, however, in Malcolm's interview notes.
Masson contended below that both the quotation and Malcolm's notes were fabricated. The district court assumed for the purpose of disposing the summary judgment motion that Masson did not refer to himself as an intellectual gigolo. The district court noted, however, that the tape of this conversation contains the following comment:
[Eissler and Anna Freud] felt, in a sense, I [Masson] was a private asset but a public liability. They like me when I was alone in their living room, and I could talk and chat and tell them the truth about things and they would tell me. But that I was, in a sense, much too junior within the hierarchy of analysis, for these important training analysts to be caught dead with me.
The court held that malice could not be inferred from the purported fabrication because Malcolm's "use of the descriptive term 'intellectual gigolo' was a rational interpretation of [these] … comments." The district court opined further that "[t]he descriptive term 'intellectual gigolo,' as used in this context, simply means that Masson's views were privately entertaining, but publicly embarrassing to Freud and Eissler."
We believe that the district court accurately assessed Malcolm's interpretation of Masson's characterization of the views of Eissler and Anna Freud. While it may be true that Masson did not use the words "intellectual gigolo," Malcolm's interpretation did not alter the substantive content of Masson's description of himself as a "private asset but a public liability" to Eissler and Anna Freud. The district court did not err in determining that Masson did not prove by clear and convincing evidence that Malcolm acted with malice in attributing the words "intellectual gigolo" to Masson.
And you can read more of the same in that decision — or you can read the legal and factul issues discussed in some of the other court opinions the case, such as the U.S. Supreme Court opinion (Masson v. New Yorker Magazine, Inc. (89-1799), 501 U.S. 496 (1991)):
Each passage before us purports to quote a statement made by petitioner during the interviews. Yet in each instance no identical statement appears in the more than 40 hours of taped interviews. Petitioner complains that Malcolm fabricated all but one passage; with respect to that passage, he claims Malcolm omitted a crucial portion, rendering the remainder misleading. […]
Malcolm quoted petitioner as describing his plans for Maresfield Gardens, which he had hoped to occupy after Anna Freud's death:
" `It was a beautiful house, but it was dark and sombre and dead. Nothing ever went on there. I was the only person who ever came. I would have renovated it, opened it up, brought it to life. Maresfield Gardens would have been a center of scholarship, but it would also have been a place of sex, women, fun. It would have been like the change in The Wizard of Oz, from black-and-white into color.' " In the Freud Archives 33.
The tape recordings contain a similar statement, but in place of the reference to "sex, women, fun," and The Wizard of Oz, petitioner commented:
"[I]t is an incredible storehouse. I mean, the library, Freud's library alone is priceless in terms of what it contains: all his books with his annotations in them; the Schreber case annotated, that kind of thing. It's fascinating." App. 127.
Petitioner did talk, earlier in the interview, of his meeting with a London analyst:
"I like him. So, and we got on very well. That was the first time we ever met and you know, it was buddybuddy, and we were to stay with each other and [laughs] we were going to pass women on to each other, and we were going to have a great time together when I lived in the Freud house. We'd have great parties there and we were [laughs] —
I'm not defending either Lehrer or Malcolm — I agree with Justice Kennedy's observation that
In general, quotation marks around a passage indicate to the reader that the passage reproduces the speaker's words verbatim. They inform the reader that he or she is reading the statement of the speaker, not a paraphrase or other indirect interpretation by an author. By providing this information, quotations add authority to the statement and credibility to the author's work. Quotations allow the reader to form his or her own conclusions, and to assess the conclusions of the author, instead of relying entirely upon the author's characterization of her subject. […]
The work at issue here, however, as with much journalistic writing, provides the reader no clue that the quotations are being used as a rhetorical device or to paraphrase the speaker's actual statements. To the contrary, the work purports to be nonfiction, the result of numerous interviews. At least a trier of fact could so conclude. The work contains lengthy quotations attributed to petitioner, and neither Malcolm nor her publishers indicate to the reader that the quotations are anything but the reproduction of actual conversations. Further, the work was published in The New Yorker, a magazine which at the relevant time seemed to enjoy a reputation for scrupulous factual accuracy.
But I find it odd that Lehrer was forced to resign, while Malcolm is still on the New Yorker staff. And I'm surprised that everyone writing about the Lehrer case seems to assume that what he did — at least the initial making-up-quotes part — was obviously outside the norms of journalistic practice. On the contrary, it was completely business as usual.