Press: The Right to Fake Quotes

A journalist's legal victory raises questions about ethics

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Journalism at best only approximates reality, because writers must inevitably select and compress. If they cannot cram in the whole truth, however, they can be expected to deliver the truth and nothing but -- especially between quotation marks. The very use of that punctuation signals a special claim to credibility: this is not judgment but unfiltered fact.

To the consternation of many journalists, however, the meaning of those quotation marks has been blurred by a three-judge panel of the U.S. appeals court in California. In a 2-to-1 vote, the judges this month dismissed a libel suit by psychoanalyst Jeffrey Masson against New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm, holding that a writer may misquote a subject -- even deliberately -- as long as the sense is not substantially changed. Malcolm's articles attributed to Masson some dozen phrases he contends were altered or fabricated. Most offensive to him was a supposed self-characterization as an "intellectual gigolo."

The court ruled that even if Masson did not say those words, Malcolm's inventions were permissible because they did not "alter the substantive content" of what he actually said, or were a "rational interpretation" of his comments. Judge Alex Kozinski fiercely dissented: "While courts have a grave responsibility under the First Amendment to safeguard freedom of the press, the right to deliberately alter quotations is not, in my view, a concomitant of a free press."

The decision reinforced the rigorous standard of evidence imposed on public figures who sue for libel, and struck some journalists as reasonable in that context. Editor Eugene Roberts of the Philadelphia Inquirer noted, "After every press conference, where often you can't hear very well, you will see three or four variations on the same quote. Just about every time, the intent was preserved." To others, the victory seemed Pyrrhic. Said editor Bill Monroe of the Washington Journalism Review: "I don't see how any journalist can be happy with a judge condoning tampering with specific quotes."

Last March, as Masson's suit was pending, Malcolm sparked a debate about press ethics with a New Yorker article that began, "Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse." Although she focused on a ruptured relationship between author Joe McGinniss (Fatal Vision) and his subject, murderer Jeffrey MacDonald, many readers assumed that Malcolm was writing confessionally, if unknowingly, about herself.

That controversy proved fleeting, but the impact of the Masson case will probably linger. Journalists publicize any prominent reporter's willful lapse from factuality because they consider it uncommon, hence newsworthy; the irony is that the coverage prompts many readers to assume that such failings are widespread. Many a journalist has felt the temptation, as Malcolm allegedly did, either to skip the drudgery of poring over notes or, having perused them in vain, to concoct the perfect quote to make the point. Such behavior may be legal. But as every journalist knows, it is, in Malcolm's own words, "morally indefensible."