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'It is I,' said the fullback

hould editors "correct" quotes? No. Quotes are sacred.

This doesn't mean we need to reproduce every "um," every "er," every cough, it doesn't mean a reporter's transcription errors can't be corrected, and it certainly doesn't mean that stories should attempt to re-create dialect (plenty of literate people pronounce "should have" as "should of"), but it does mean that a reader should be able to watch a TV interview and read the same interview in the newspaper and not notice discrepancies in word choice.

Before radio and TV, let alone 24-hour cable news and C-SPAN, the lying journalist could rest assured that very few people would ever catch such deception. Today, however, it's pretty likely that somewhere someone is watching on CNN as somebody says, "I ain't saying nothing to you [bleep]er [bleep]ers," while reading a printed account of the same statement that says, "I respectfully decline to comment, my good man." (OK, maybe I'm exaggerating, but you get the point.)

After all, what is the point of quotation marks if not to signal that what's inside is a verbatim account of what was said?

It is often argued that quoting people accurately is somehow unfair, that reproducing the little flaws that everyone makes when speaking "makes them look stupid." Too bad. That's no reason to lie, which is what you're doing when you put quote marks around a non-quote.

Another problem with worrying about "making people look stupid" is that it introduces an insidious class calculus: If William Safire fails to use the subjunctive when he should have, you'll correct that, but will you do the same in a quote from a football player, or a welfare mother? You have to decide on a "correct but not too correct" version of your stylebook to ensure that educated people don't look uneducated but uneducated people don't look too educated. Once you've gone this far, why not just make up all of your quotes? (What a tangled web we weave . . .)

A corollary to the class problem is the problem of cases where certain editors might want to make people look uneducated, or at least colorful. In a feature story on a Southern sheriff's down-home ways, do we want to impose the sequence of tenses on his yarn about a possum over yonder by the woodpile? Or how about this: If a big story were to break on a public official making a hilarious goof in a speech, wouldn't it be a little unfair to report this in a publication that essentially pretends nobody else in the world ever makes a grammatical mistake out loud?

I may sound strident on a lot of other points, but this is one where I truly believe that people who disagree with me are deranged. The answer is breathtakingly simple: It's our job to tell the truth.

Now what?


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