Ozplogistan has been buzzing over an article written by perennial target of the right, Phillip Adams, accusing Bush of lying in the leadup to the war on Iraq.. Professor Bunyip leads off, accusing Adams of plagiarism and fraud, and is followed up by Ken Parish (who echoes Bunyip in his initial post, but backs off a bit in the comments thread), Bargarz and Tim Blair.
The key fact, which seems pretty clear, is that Adams has taken a series of quotes, attributed to Bush and other administrative figures, from a piece in the New York Review of Books by Thomas Powers , all of which show the Administration claiming that Saddam had large stocks of WMDs. The plagiarism count doesn’t stand up, since Adams refers to Powers, though in my view the article fails the Google test, and was a fairly lazy piece of work.
The real problem, though, is that the quotation of Bush’s State of the Union speech is inaccurate, making it appear that Bush positively asserted the presence of
500 tons of chemical weapons, 25,000 liters of anthrax, 38,000 liters of botulinum toxin, 30,000 prohibited bombs and warheads
In fact, Bush listed these amounts as estimates (quite wrong estimates as it’s turned out) of Saddam’s stocks in 1999, and then said that Saddam hadn’t accounted for them. Bush’s speech wasn’t paraphrased by Powers as asserting Saddam might have these weapons, and Adams then converted this back into a direct quote, omitting the “might”.
My guess is that this is sloppiness rather than deliberate distortion – it’s easy to find better, and more obviously false, quotes from Bush and the Administration. Still it is, or ought to be, a basic rule of journalism that you verify quotes rather than reproducing them from hostile sources, particularly when the original is as easily accessible as the State of the Union speech. Adams has failed to obey this rule and ought to publish a correction and apology – if he doesn’t the inference of deliberate distortion could fairly be drawn.
What’s interesting about this is that it is an almost direct parallel of the infamous Schneider quote, discussed at length on this blog, except with sides reversed. In this quote, widely circulated around the blogosphere despite repeated refutation, Schneider is made out to advocate scientific fraud in the interests of the environment by such quote-doctoring techniques as omission of sentences, running together of separate sentences and, in a version propagated by the late Julian Simon, outright fabrication.
Many of those who’ve complained about Adams have, in the past, taken a fairly relaxed view of the Schneider quote, and correspondingly derisive about my prissy concerns for accuracy in quotation. Quite a few still seem to see the two as differing in crucial ways. On the other hand, respondents from a left perspective have been inclined to suggest that Adams didn’t really change the meaning of Bush’s statements. (The comments thread to the Ken Parish post is a good place to observe the debate.)
In my view, the differences are entirely in the eye of the beholder. In both cases, people who are hostile to the person being quoted see the omitted sentences as mere weasel words, while those being quoted (and their supporters) see them as crucial. The same is true of fabricated additions such as those used by Julian Simon in quoting Schneider (one of many examples from both sides) – for the critics, it’s only a matter of inserting a sentence to show what the speaker “really meant”.
So we have a choice. Either we can make up whatever quotes we like and put them in the mouths of our opponents, provided we judge that the manufactured quote is an accurate reflection of the speaker’s real meaning, or we can stick to the rules of exact quotation*. Which is it to be?
* That is, quote the entire relevant statement by the person being quoted with omissions of irrelevant material denoted by ellipses. If the person being quoted objects to the omissions, or would be likely to do so, then they are not irrelevant, regardless of what the person doing the quoting thinks.