Quotes and Ethics

ONE of the first things I learned in my journalism course more than a half century ago was the sanctity of the quotation mark. You could say bad things about a person, but could not make a person appear to be saying bad things about himself or herself by putting the words between quotes.

That was before television, which has its own rules. In docudramas and reality-based shows, people are made to say, through the actors portraying them, things they may never have said. Even in news programs, deft editing can make a person speak sound bites out of context.

Now television's urge to fictionalize has invaded magazines. In San Francisco, a court is weighing whether a New Yorker writer, Janet Malcolm, libeled a former psychoanalyst, Jeffrey Masson, by using quote unquote to put words in his mouth unflattering to himself.

She had taped many hours of interviews with him, but nowhere did Mr. Masson call himself "an intellectual gigolo" and "the greatest analyst who ever lived." Nor did he say he planned to use the house of Anna Freud, daughter of the founder of psychoanalysis, for "sex, women, fun." The magazine's lawyer wanted to delete sex and women but was overridden by Ms. Malcolm's editor, who is her husband.

She portrayed Masson as a boastful, manipulative jerk. Maybe he is, but that does not confer the right to have him appear to say so within quotation marks.

A journalist can hardly discuss an issue of journalistic ethics without some bias, and let me admit mine. I have had reservations about Malcolm ever since she wrote, "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." She was writing about writer Joe McGinniss and how he got Jeffrey MacDonald, the doctor convicted of murdering his wife and two daughters, to confide in him for the book "Fatal Vision." Malcolm talked ab out the journalist as a kind of "confidence man," preying on the people he deals with.

She does not say whether that is how she dealt with Masson, but, according to his testimony, she did tell him, "Jeff, you'll love the piece." Well, he didn't. And his libel suit has been up to the Supreme Court and back, for trial, to the Federal Court in San Francisco.

I cannot understand Malcolm's position. She testifies that what she was trying to do was "render a readable quotation" from "sloppy, redundant, repetitious speech." Masson, she said, "tended to speak in a rather chaotic, contradictory way." But, if so, how better to reveal his personality than by transcribing a few paragraphs of his chaotic speech? And how deceptive, then, to have him speaking in pithy characterizations of himself.

The court will have to decide the novel legal issue of whether misquotations can be libelous and damaging. Some older members of the journalistic community are ready to render their non-legal judgment. A quote is a quote and an invented quote is a disgrace. It was Janet Malcolm who wrote, "The idea of a reporter inventing rather than reporting speech is a repugnant, even a sinister one." She wrote that about Mr. McGinniss, not about herself.

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