Mangled quotes take on a life of their own

John Leo

7/27/2003 12:00:00 AM - John Leo
Maybe we should give an award for mangled quotation of the year. Misquotations are becoming a regular feature of journalism and politics, partly out of carelessness but mostly because anything-goes partisanship so deeply afflicts our discourse.

So here are the nominees for the first award:

(1) The Associated Press for butchering a line from Justice Antonin Scalia's dissent in the Texas sodomy decision. The AP quoted Scalia as saying he has "nothing against homosexuals." This misquote was endlessly recycled in news stories and commentaries, usually to mock Scalia for a gay version of "some of my best friends are Jews."

What Scalia actually wrote was this: "I have nothing against homosexuals, or any other group, promoting their agenda through normal democratic means." He wasn't offering his feelings about gays (he is on the non-touchy-feely wing of the court). He was talking about the rights of all groups to organize and lobby.

(2) Maureen Dowd, for her quote from President Bush saying that al-Qaida and the terrorist groups of 9/11 are not a problem any more. ("That group of terrorists who attacked our country is slowly but surely being decimated. ... They're not a problem any more." -- Dowd's version of Bush in her New York Times column of May 14).

Here is the full Bush quote, without the three misleading dots: "Al-Qaida is on the run. That group of terrorists who attacked our country is slowly, but surely, being decimated. Right now, about half of all the top al-Qaida operatives are either jailed or dead. In either case, they're not a problem any more."

(3) The BBC, probably the most relentlessly anti-American organization in Britain, recently altered a transcript of one of its own stories, thus misquoting itself. The story dealt with Park Jong-lin, a 70-year-old veteran of the Korean War who "served in the North Korean army fighting against the imperialist American aggressors and their South Korean accomplices." In the altered version quote marks now surround "imperialist American aggressors" and the BBC's reference to "accomplices" was changed to "allies."

Prediction: Because Internet bloggers now watch the wayward BBC carefully, more touched-up transcripts will come to light. The BBC, by the way, falsely reported the Jessica Lynch rescue as a made-for-TV special faked with U.S. soldiers firing blanks for the cameras. (Change that transcript!)

(4) The Democrats, for a TV ad in Madison, Wis., misquoting President Bush's uranium reference in his State of the Union message. The Republicans have offered so many conflicting versions of Bush's now-famous 16 words that you would think that the Democrats wouldn't have bothered to remove the first six words crediting (or blaming) British intelligence for the uranium-from-Africa report. But they did. The ad has Bush saying flatly, "Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

(5) The French, for changing an apparently anti-American remark made on July 21 by President Jacques Chirac. In Malaysia to meet with Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamed, Chirac called for multilateralism in world affairs, then added: "We can no longer accept the law of the strongest, the law of the jungle." When a reporter called the Elysee Palace to ask about the reference, he found that the quote showed up on their transcript as, "We can no longer accept the evolution of men, the world, we can no longer accept the simple law of the strongest."

Oh, I get it. Chirac wasn't attacking America or the war in Iraq. He was just sharing his abstract opinion on faulty evolutionary theories and social Darwinism.

So who deserves the award? One vote here for the AP. It can't be that the reporter somehow failed to notice the second half of Scalia's sentence. At Slate, Dahlia Lithwick wrote that this was "a case of the media getting a quote completely wrong and disseminating it so that it becomes universally believed." Give the award to the AP. It's a statuette of Nathan Hale, with his famous quote, "I regret that I have but one life."