Molly Ivins Can’t Say I Said That, Can She?

I've been a fan of Molly Ivins for many years, but in yesterday's column she subtly misquotes me and gets the name of my employer wrong. Should I care? And, living in a blogger's glass house, dare I care?

Here's what happened. Salon.com recently ran an item by Geraldine Sealey in its “War Room” which said, in part,

On his excellent blog, University of Miami law professor Michael Froomkin analyzes the Pentagon torture memo, or at least the redacted version published on Wall Street Journal Online. His reaction: “If anyone in the higher levels of government acted in reliance on this advice, those persons should be impeached. If they authorized torture, it may be that they have committed, and should be tried for, war crimes. And, as we learned at Nuremberg, 'I was just following orders' is NOT (and should not be) a defense.”

And, in my item on the Bybee Memo I wrote,

the lawyers who wrote this memo were guilty of a lack of moral sense, and extreme tunnel vision fueled by a national panic. The people who asked them to write it, who read it, and especially any who may have acted on it — they’re people who really have the most to answer for.

Somehow, by the time Ms. Ivins was done with it, this became,

As Professor Michael Froomkin, of Miami University, told Salon magazine: “The lawyers who wrote it are guilty. The people who asked them to write it, who read it and who may have acted on it, they're the people who really have to answer for it.”

So there are three mistakes packed in there:

  1. I didn't “tell” Salon anything, the War Room just very kindly quoted from my blog.
  2. I don't teach at Miami University in Ohio—they don't even have a law school. I teach at the University of Miami School of Law in Coral Gables, Florida.
  3. Most seriously, the transformation of “the lawyers who wrote this memo were guilty of a lack of moral sense, and extreme tunnel vision fueled by a national panic” to “The lawyers who wrote it are guilty” subtly changed the meaning of the first sentence. And the second has been re-written too. Why?

OK, none of these is that big a deal, although the journalists I know best would (I think) set themselves a higher standard of accuracy. Nor, I suppose, would this sort of transformation be unheard of in the blog world, although we have hyperlinks to keep us more faithful to sources.

But in the academic legal publishing world we footnote everything and try real, real hard to get it just right (and even there, being human, fail sometimes). We do, however, have the luxury of time, and often the additional luxury of various forms of smart and somewhat-trained student research assistants and editors. The absence of time for detailed checking and reflection (not to mention the absence of smart assistance) is one reason why it's hard sometimes to feel comfortable about blogging about current legal events except the narrowest subset of things I know best—it's writing without the safety net of time and reflection. Timeliness has a value, but to the academic in me that hurrying sometimes feels dangerous and wrong. And it means the odds are much greater (approaching certainty?) that I will be wrong sometimes when blogging in ways I would never be in academic writing.

Glass house indeed.

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7 Responses to Molly Ivins Can’t Say I Said That, Can She?

  1. Pat says:

    Sigh…even with a resource like the Internet at our disposal the classic game of Telephone never seems to die.

  2. Imo Shem says:

    Journalists like sound bites. If you wish to retain the fidelity of your ideas, you must think short, sweet, and unambiguous. If your turn of phrase is cutting enough, it will endure. And you must give up any pretense of subtlety. Or… you could just shrug. She spelt your name correctly, after all.

  3. Barsk says:

    I’m not so sure, her subtle changes really do change your message quite a lot, in a way that personally I might not be comfortable with. At the same time I have found that many journalists are going to re-write your work, no matter how short and well written it is to start with. However, they do need to show with elipses that they edited what you’re saying and she did not.

    Also I’m glad you’re not at Miami University (OH) because I think Miami weather is much nicer in Feb.

  4. Cecil Turner says:

    You might be giving Ivins more of a pass than she deserves. “Miami University” and “told” are space-saving and, though sloppy, probably excusable. Your point 3, however, is punching up the quote to make a better story. It’s of a piece with her treatment of other “quotes”:

    “70 percent to 90 percent of whom, according to Gen. Taguba’s report, were in prison by accident”

    Which of course didn’t come from Taguba, but from an ICRC report, which quoted anonymous “coalition intelligence officers.”

    “The New York Times reported, ‘In his recent trip to Rome, President Bush asked a top Vatican official to push American bishops to speak out more about political issues.'”

    Not quite. David Kirkpatrick’s NYTimes report merely summarizes the claim made by the National Catholic Reporter’s John L. Allen Jr., whom Ivins had quoted earlier. The separate quote makes it look like independent confirmation–which it wasn’t.

    Taken together there’s a pattern. Ivins’s quotes consistently support her story better (and are a bit more authoritative) than the things people actually said. And that’s past sloppy–it’s dishonest.

  5. Eli Rabett says:

    Write them nice letters. You may (or may not) get a clarification in print. Put something substantive in there about whether and why you think there should be consequences for the lawyers or the clients and you may get more of a response

  6. The rules for op-ed pieces are different, more relaxed than for Journalistic pieces. In part because they’re commenting on the news reported by others, not reporting it themselves. and in part because of the tight word-count they have to work with.

    Like Eli said, write a nice letter and you might get a clarification in print, or in re-print.

  7. MP says:

    Its always interesting to watch how academics react when confronted with the realities of life.

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