Janet Malcolm and Jonah Lehrer are not the only New Yorker writers who have been accused of fabricating quotations. A more recent case involves a piece by Jared Diamond, "Annals of Anthropology: Vengeance is Ours", 4/21/2008 (abstract on the New Yorker's web site here). Diamond's article led to a long series of negative responses at iMediaEthics and Savage Minds, as well as a $10M libel suit (which as far as I can tell is still pending).
For a simple, clear and (I think) fair account of the facts and issues in the Diamond case, see Michael Balter, "'Vengeance' Bites back At Jared Diamond", Science 5/15/2009. Here's the start of Balter's account, giving the general background:
In April 2008, well-known biologist and author Jared Diamond penned a dramatic story in The New Yorker magazine, a violent tale of revenge and warfare in Papua New Guinea (PNG). Titled “Vengeance is Ours” and published under the banner “Annals of Anthropology,” the 8000-word article tells the story of a clan war organized by a young Papua New Guinean named Daniel Wemp to avenge the death of Wemp's uncle, Soll. In Diamond's telling, the war started in the 1990s over a pig digging up someone's garden, went on for 3 years, and resulted in the deaths of 29 people. In the end, Diamond wrote, Wemp won: His primary target, a man Diamond referred to as “Isum,” had his spine cut by an arrow and was confined to a wheelchair. Diamond juxtaposed Wemp's story with that of his own father-in-law, a Holocaust survivor who never exacted retribution for the loss of his family, to draw an overall lesson about the human need for vengeance. […]
The lawsuit, which also names as a defendant Advance Publications Inc., the owner of The New Yorker, demands at least $10 million in damages. It follows a yearlong investigation led by Rhonda Roland Shearer, an artist and the widow of evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould. […]
As Balter notes, many quite basic facts are at issue:
Shearer and her colleagues, who included three researchers in PNG, claim that Diamond and The New Yorker got many important facts wrong in the original article, including the contentions that Wemp had personally organized the warfare, that Soll was his uncle, and that Mandingo had been paralyzed by an arrow. Indeed, the Stinkyjournalism.org report includes a recent photograph said to be of Mandingo standing and looking strong and healthy. […]
At least one other Papua New Guinean supports the account of Shearer's team. “Diamond's article is a confused story that names real places and persons but mixes up false, wrong, and defamatory allegations that bring into disrepute the good name of the named clans and their members,” said Mako Kuwimb, a member of Wemp's Handa clan and a PNG attorney now doing graduate work at James Cook University in Queensland, Australia. […] On 21 April of this year, Kuwimb sent The New Yorker's publisher, Lisa Hughes, a detailed, 30-page refutation of the Diamond article. Among Diamond's biggest errors, Kuwimb told Hughes, were his statements that the war he described had begun with the “pig in the garden” episode and had lasted 3 years. Kuwimb contends that the war was sparked by a gambling dispute and lasted only a few months.
The plaintiffs (Henep Isum Mandingo and Hup Daniel Wemp) have submitted an amended complaint that claims even more striking divergences between the New Yorker story and the facts, e.g.
f. Daniel Wemp was not a participant in this war at all. At the time of the fighting, Wemp was working some 200 miles away at the coast, in a city called Madang. He only learned of the fighting after it was over.
g. Daniel was not injured in the fight, but received an injury some ten years earlier when he was 11 or 12 while he was watching another fight between two different clans.
h. Isum was not wounded in revenge for the death of Soll. Soll was still alive, although wounded, then Isum was wounded.
But our concern here is not with the facts but with the words. In this case, unlike the Malcolm and Lehrer cases, there is little in the way of objective evidence about the wording of the contested quotations. Janet Malcolm's unquotations from Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson allegedly came from 40 hours of tape recorded interviews, and could also be compared to her extensive notes from those (and other?) interviews. Jonah Lehrer's unquotations from Bob Dylan allegedly came from available books, movies, interviews, and so on. In contrast, the alleged quotations in Jared Diamond's article are based on his memories of discussions in 2001 when he employed Wemp as a driver in PNG, and on the notes he took during a 2006 interview with him.
Here are the first two paragraphs of Diamond's article:
In 1992, when Daniel Wemp was about twenty-two years old, his beloved paternal uncle Soll was killed in a battle against the neighboring Ombal clan. In the New Guinea Highlands, where Daniel and his Handa clan live, uncles and aunts play a big role in raising children, so an uncle’s death represents a much heavier blow than it might to most Americans. Daniel often did not even distinguish between his biological father and other male clansmen of his father’s generation. And Soll had been very good to Daniel, who recalled him as a tall and handsome man, destined to become a leader. Soll’s death demanded vengeance.
Daniel told me that responsibility for arranging revenge usually falls on the victim’s firstborn son or, failing that, on one of his brothers. “Soll did have a son, but he was only six years old at the time of his father’s death, much too young to organize the revenge,” Daniel said. “On the other hand, my father was felt to be too old and weak by then; the avenger should be a strong young man in his prime. So I was the one who became expected to avenge Soll.” As it turned out, it took three years, twenty-nine more killings, and the sacrifice of three hundred pigs before Daniel succeeded in discharging this responsibility.
If you have an ear for the English language, you may be struck by the depiction, in the second paragraph, of a PNG tribesman expressing himself verbally in phrases reminiscent of William F. Buckley in his prime:
"Soll did have a son, but he was only six years old at the time of his father’s death, much too young to organize the revenge. On the other hand, my father was felt to be too old and weak by then; the avenger should be a strong young man in his prime. So I was the one who became expected to avenge Soll."
According to Rhonda Shearer ("Jared Diamond's Factual Collapse", 4/21/2009), Daniel Wemp made exactly this point in a recorded conversation with New Yorker fact checker Chris Jennings on 8/21/2008 (four months after the New Yorker article was published):
In his interview with Jennings on August 21, 2008, Daniel said, “The words that I have spoken during that time I can’t actually remember what words I have spoken, all these notes that he has taken [inaudible] …but I see that the English [inaudible]…on the article is not good enough for such person like me [inaudible]. It is a perfect English which is written on the article.”
Jennings’ answered, “Okay. So, you think that the words may not sound like your own words.”
"Daniel Wemp" is quoted in a similarly elevated and writerly register throughout the New Yorker article. Thus:
When I asked Daniel how the war that claimed his uncle’s life began, he answered, “The original cause of the wars between the Handa and Ombal clans was a pig that ruined a garden.” Surprisingly to outsiders, most Highland wars start ostensibly as a dispute over either pigs or women.
On the first day of the resulting fight, Daniel was wounded. “I was advancing in battle with my biological father, who was holding a shield to protect me, while I myself held the weapons,” he told me. “As my father and I went up a hill towards a stone quarry from which the Ombal enemy was throwing stones as well as spears, a stone hit my father on his leg. So I took the shield to protect my father, and I told him to go faster. That was when I was left unprotected, and an Ombal spear struck me on the back of my lower left leg.” He showed me an inch-long scar and explained apologetically, “If, in a fight, you receive a wound on your forehead, then you are considered to have done well, but if you only have a spear wound on the back of your leg, like this one of mine, then you are viewed as not having fought well.”
Is it plausible that these are really direct quotations from Daniel Wemp? As we noted back in 2009, that issue is addressed quantitatively by Douglas Biber, "Did Daniel Wemp really say that? Using corpus linguistics to evaluate the likelihood that Jared Diamond's reported quotes in The New Yorker were ever spoken", iMediaEthics 6/2/2009:
The language of conversation is dramatically different from the language of academic writing. Some of the differences between the two are obvious to all of us, such as contractions and incomplete sentences. However, many other grammatical differences are much more difficult to detect.
Over the last 25 years, a research approach has been developed for the empirical analysis of such grammatical characteristics. Referred to as ‘corpus linguistics’, the approach is based on the analysis of very large collections of natural texts from thousands of individual speakers and writers. Computer programs aid the analyses, which result in descriptions of grammatical features that occur frequently, features that are typical, and features that rarely occur. In addition, by comparing corpora with different kinds of texts, it is possible to contrast the grammatical characteristics that are usually found in conversation to those usually found in academic writing (or any other spoken or written varieties).
Doug applied these techniques to an analysis of the Wemp "quotations" in Diamond's New Yorker article:
For various reasons, scholars have questioned the appropriateness and accuracy of the information in this article. The question investigated with corpus analysis was more narrow: how likely, or unlikely, is it that the quotes cited in this article were actually produced in speech? That is, how likely is it that Daniel Wemp said these exact words?
In this case, the analysis began with a linguistic description of Diamond’s quotes (i.e., the quotations attributed to Daniel Wemp as his spoken words in the 4/21/08 New Yorker article). Those quotes were compared to an independent record of Daniel Wemp’s actual speech, based on verbatim transcripts of spoken interviews collected by Rhonda Roland Shearer. Quantitative analyses of the New Yorker quotes and the Daniel Wemp (DW) transcripts were carried out, to identify grammatical features that were frequent or rare.
Then, those quantitative findings were compared to previous large-scale corpus analyses of conversation and academic writing, to determine whether the New Yorker quotes were typical of the language normally used in conversation. The results were surprising: in many respects, the New Yorker quotes are much more similar to the language typically used in academic writing than to normal conversation.
Here's his tabular summary of the results (cited rates are per million words):
|Grammatical feature||Rate in actual conversation||Rate in Diamond quotes||Comparison of the two|
|Attributive adjectives (e.g., original, biological)||c. 15,000||c. 30,000||2 times more frequent in Diamond quotes|
|Preposition of||c. 12,000||c. 34,000||3 times more frequent in Diamond quotes|
|Noun post-modifier complexes (e.g., The original cause [of the wars [between the Handa and Ombal clans] ])||c. 500||c. 3,000||6 times more frequent in Diamond quotes|
|Noun phrases with both pre-modifiers and post-modifiers (e.g., a stone quarry from which the Ombal enemy was throwing stones)||c. 500||c. 4,000||8 times more frequent in Diamond quotes|
|‘extraposed’ to-clauses controlled by an adjective (e.g., it’s not acceptable [to set fire to the hut])||c. 100||c. 2,000||20 times more frequent in Diamond quotes|
|Noun + to-clause (e.g., the opportunity [to see who really are the best marksmen])||c. 50||c. 1,200||25 times more frequent in Diamond quotes|
|Adjective and/but adjective (e.g., tall and handsome)
|c. 20||c. 2,000||100 times more frequent in Diamond quotes|
|Preposition + Relative pronoun (e.g., each battle in which we succeeded in killing an Ombal)||c. 20||c. 2,000||100 times more frequent in Diamond quotes|
And his conclusion:
These comparisons show the magnitude of the discrepancies between the grammatical style of normal conversation contrasted with the grammatical style of the Diamond quotes. To find one of these grammatical features in a normal conversation is noteworthy. To find repeated use of this large constellation of features in actual spoken discourse, some of them occurring c. 100 times more often than in normal conversation, is extremely unlikely. In contrast, these are all features that are typical of academic writing, suggesting that they have their origin in writing rather than actual speech.
Other corpus studies (e.g., the book University Language; Biber, 2006) have shown that these same features are rare and exceptional in even academic speech, including university lectures. In contrast, what we find in the Diamond quotes is the pervasive use of a suite of grammatical constructions, which are all rare in conversation but common in formal writing. This constellation of grammatical characteristics is also strikingly different from the grammatical style of the verbatim transcripts of speech produced by DW. In sum, the analysis strongly indicates that the Diamond quotes are much more like discourse that was produced in writing, reflecting the typical grammatical features of formal academic prose, rather than verbatim representations of language that was produced in speech.
My conclusion? When you see a passage in quotation marks in a New Yorker article, you should not expect it to be a truthful representation of anything that the alleged speaker ever actually said. Rather, you should take it as the author's expression of what they want you to believe that the speaker meant. In some cases, these unquotations are "poetically true", that is, they give an insightful impression of the speaker's feelings and attitudes, although the writer knows that the words are not original. In other cases, the unquotations are an honest misrepresentation, in the sense that they're genuinely what the author understood (or at least, remembers) the speaker to have meant to say. And sometimes, the unquotations are completely fictional, in the sense that the author doesn't care at all what the alleged speaker either said or meant, but puts words in their mouth in order to advance the narrative.
This same uncertainty, unfortunately, seems to be characteristic of journalistic practice as a whole. Surprisingly, journalists often make up quotations even when recordings and transcripts of the misquoted material are publicly available. (See links here for illustrative examples.) Some publications have a theoretical commitment to accurate quotation — though as far as I know, the New Yorker does not — but it's rare to hear of a journalist suffering significant personal or reputational damage for misuse of quotation marks.