Quoting Someone in 2019 is Very Easy, So Why Do People Still Get it Wrong?
I recently got into a mini Twitter beef with someone whose Twitter profile says, “Bylines in @TabletMag (Tablet Magazine) and @jdforward (The Forward)” (@wonk0_the_sane). Notice, I am quoting his actual Twitter profile and the exact words he uses in that profile. Therefore I am putting his words in quotations. Quotations tell you, the dear reader, those words were first uttered or written by somebody else, not by the current author. It is fairly simple. However, the words in the parentheses are not actually in his profile; they exist on a different plain as a clarification. Those are my words. This is not a difficult concept to grasp. Yet, in the day and age of uber-information, people like “@wonko_the_sane” will get annoyed and defensive when you call them out for misattribution or making up quotations. Quoting somebody is not paraphrasing. There is a distinct difference. If you paraphrase, you may not use quotation marks and you must make it abundantly clear you are paraphrasing. To use quotation marks when you are paraphrasing is to create words that were never proffered by a different person and to misattribute their words. That is journalistic malpractice, plain and simple.
Page views, clicks, and outrage are the online currency of 2019. It does not matter what your ethics are so long as you have people discussing your latest article or the snarky tweet you sent out. This leads to a culture where simple journalistic practices go out the window. Why use the exact quotation and words of another when you can slyly substitute a paraphrase and pass it off as the actual quotation? Invariably the paraphrase is either more poignant, caustic or funnier than the original. Where is the harm in that? That is the main question driving most of the shoddy journalism or quoting of today. If the paraphrase works a little bit better, is a little shorter, or will impact the reader a little more than the actual quotation, is it better to use the paraphrase? Nope. Not if you are quoting somebody else.
Let us take a shallow dive into the example at the heart of this article:
Hen is referring to Candace ‘if Hitler only killed Jews in Germany it would’ve been fine’ Owens, who is the Director of Communications for Turning Points USA. A TPUSA event featured a man promoting a conspiracy about Jews & white genocide
— Alex (@Wonko_the_sane_) April 12, 2019
What caught my ire, and the only thing that warranted my response was the specific way he dubbed Candace Owens, “if Hitler only killed Jews in Germany it would’ve been fine.” He is doing two things here: (1) completely fabricating a quotation and (2) using that fabricated quotation to bestow a new (and long) nickname on Owens. Normally, if this was just some Twitter troll, I would let it slide. But this is somebody who has “bylines” in the Tablet Magazine and The Forward. He should know better. And he does (getting to that soon). As per Owens, she is not my cup of tea. I believe she has decent points from time to time, but can say some pretty stupid stuff like,
See? Alex is quoting Owens. Owens’ words are dumb. D-U-M DUMB! That is the exact point though. If the words are in of themselves stupid, you do not need to go creating better versions and passing them off as the truth. It does not matter if you are quoting someone you enjoy or someone you find repulsive, the quotation is the quotation. If you want to paraphrase, you may go right ahead, but you have to make it overtly clear that you are doing so. When “Alex” tidies up the Owens quote to create a catchier (albeit still long) nickname, he is doing a disservice to the truth and journalism.
Truth is a dying idea in 2019. People bandy about phrases like, “My Truth” all the time not recognizing that while putting a qualifier in front of the word “truth” you are making it less so. Journalism in 2019 is so toxic it has its own section of the hospital: it lies behind three layers of decontaminating devices, hooked up to a breathing machine and with a gaping wound in its chest that spells out T-R-U-M before the hole appears. But we live in an age where you can find EVERYTHING anyone has said, and “quote them on it.”
So when somebody says something aggressively stupid, it is easy to find that quotation and begin quoting them. You do not have to go and make stuff up. You can record it audibly, write it down verbatim in shorthand, or even screenshot the exact phrase, utterance, or rant. The underlying lesson here is this; if you want to start quoting people, make sure they said or wrote everything you are putting in quotations. If you want to paraphrase them, go right ahead, just be blunt about it. And if you are called out for blatantly shoddy practices, admit to the mistake. Otherwise, you are just being an ass and proving the words you write have no meaning. And yes, you can quote me on that.