Tuesday, December 8, 2009
MOJ-friend Paul Horwitz writes:
Professor George, writing about a reporter's (serious) error in a story quoting Chip Lupu, says that the reporter "manufacure[d]" the quote from Lupu "in order to present him as impugning other people's motives." He adds that this conduct is "outrageous," and that surely "not a single participant or reader of this blog would disagree with me about that." I am a loyal MoJ reader. I respectfully disagree.
Perhaps my own past experience as a journalist colors my views here, but I believe most reporters are conscientious and that even the best reporters are all too human. The reporter in question surely made a serious mistake; journalists, I can attest from my own experience, take very seriously what falls inside the quotation marks and what falls outside them, and even if the sense of the quote were right, one should feel awful about getting the letter of the quote wrong. This reporter does not appear to have acted recklessly; Professor Lupu says she read the relevant portions of her notes back to him, even if the mistake nevertheless occurred. Still, mistakes can enter in when one takes written or typed notes on an interview. Sometimes, the mistake is introduced not by the reporter but by the editor, and I do not know whether that is the case here, although I would still hope a reporter would take it upon herself to secure a correction in that event. But we are all human.
Is there an MoJ-related point here? You bet. Reporters, like everyone else, make mistakes, even when they are trying their best not to. If enough of them are made, we can start questioning the reliability of that reporter. But I don't think we should rush in civil dialogue to assume that someone -- even someone at the dreaded New York Times! -- has deliberately "manufactured" a quote, let alone done so with a deliberate and malicious end in mind. Most faiths distinguish between intentional and inadvertent wrongs. Some law students (and professors!) sometimes place the quotation marks wrongly in a piece of writing, even when they are on a deadline that stretches to weeks and months rather than mere hours, and we do not assume they always do so deliberately. Even the law believes in excusable error, and on the level of day-to-day practice lawyers regularly make mistakes and forgive each other's errors without assuming some evil intent on anyone's part; have not most of us gotten filing extensions and continuances, made allowances for other's need to reschedule, agreed to the filing of amended briefs or complaints, and so on? Surely we can extend the same forgiving spirit outside our own profession without rushing to assume that this reporter acted out of bad motives. To err is human. . . .