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.

12 thoughts on “Quotations

  1. Speaking of sloppy journalism, Andrew Bolt gets a serve over at Crikey.

    What’s interesting is not really the detail of Iain Lygo’s analysis, but the shrill tone of Bolt’s responses.

    What stood out for me was that Lygo had written to Bolt during the course of his research, and Bolt intitally suspected that he must have written under a false name. When Lygo states this was not the case and asks Bolt for permission to Publish the letters Your responses to my questions are a hoot and I’m sure the Crikey readers would love to look but the letters are heavily qualified with “Confidential Information” clauses) Bolt does not give his permission. He ignores the opportunity for readers to see what he says to Lygo. I wonder if behind all that front if Bolt isn’t just a poor little fella who wants to be liked.

  2. Slightly off-topic, but regarding the Schneider quote, surely it would be better for his critics to find examples of his alleged “scary stories”, rather than just throw the (doctored or not version) quote up?

  3. The thing about quoting is that it’s so easy to get it right. The quotation marks denote … well … quotation. How hard is that? I don’t know whether Adams was being sneaky or just being sloppy, but either way he should know better.

  4. There is a real problem of asymetrical candour amongst competing ideological partisans. THis was clear in in the debate over the Gulf War, when there was attention to the other sides errors and discretion about one’s own sides errors. The Right gleefully pointed out that the Left wing’s predictions of humanitarian disasters, rising Arab streets and Battles for Baghdad were false.

    The Left is now having a field day pointing out the Right’s errors in both the objective (Disarmamemnt) and execution (resistance estimatin) of the war.

    Social science requires symmetrical falsifiability.

    Ideologists require systematic falsehoods.

  5. Obviously we have to vote for the rules of exact quotation. My objection to Blair which Mork refers to was not only that he misquoted me, and nor was it only that he misrepresented the meaning of the misquote. These two mistakes/frauds were bad enough. But the most objectionable aspect of his behaviour was that the misrepresentation of the misquote was based on a post in the blogosphere, which he dressed up as an academic opinion and criticised in another context (The Bulletin). This was thus a comprehensive distortion of the original, for which he has offerred no correction, let alone apology.

  6. I can’t bring myself to read enough of Adams to make a judgement about the serioiusness of what he has done here. A couple of points about the debate here and on Troppo:

    First, regardless of whether Adams is guilty of plaigarism as RWDBs allege, or sloppines as John Q maintains, he has more than earned a visitation from Media Watch, who regularly highlight trivial errors. That won’t happen, since David Marr only sees errors on the right. That doesn’t bother me much, especially where Piers Ackerman is concerned, but it is undeniably true.

    Second, even if their quotes are accurate, some columnists in this country have a hide receiving money for extensively quoting, paraphrasing or otherwise recycling other people’s efforts. Alan Ramsey has been a serial offender of late. His column’s are regularly one third to a half quotations. Today, he gives a verbatim report of an exchange in Senate estimates.


    An interesting news item, but a pretty easy day at the office (or, more likely, at home) for the old boy. Is he in semi-retirement?

  7. Quotes should be deadly accurate and apologised for if not. Another crime is to selectively quote to such an extent, as to lose the writer’s intended contextual meaning. Both crimes are similar in magnitude, deliberate or not.

  8. Media watch
    David Marr was in fine form this evening, upbraiding Phillip Adams for the sin of “albrechting” (from “to albrecht”, meaning to lift and twist), and all the meanwhile proving Professor Bunyip wrong and speculating on the political bias of the…

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