Anyone who pays any attention to American journalism would expect the Wall Street Journal to defend President Bush and bash Senator Kerry on its editorial page. Had the headline "Unfit for Office" been my only guide to Vietnam war vet John O'Neill's commentary in the May 4, 2004 Journal, I probably would have skipped it: nothing new here.
But these words, appearing in quotation marks in large italic type, got my attention: "I was on Mr. Kerry's boat in Vietnam. He doesn't deserve to be commander in chief."
The words, presumably, were O'Neill's and they suggested, unambiguously, that O'Neill and Kerry had served side-by-side. Here, I thought, is a guy who had a first-hand look at Kerry under fire, and who is therefore a credible source. I wanted to know why he found Kerry lacking.
The aptly named pull-quote had done its job: Pulled out of the body of O'Neill's piece, it had pulled me into it.
My first thought, as I read the piece, was that O'Neill had played fast and loose with the facts. He was on Kerry's boat, all right-after Kerry had left it. O'Neill succeeded Kerry as the boat's commander. The two men did not cross paths until they both had come home.
And it was Kerry's opposition to the war after he had come home, not his conduct in Vietnam, which formed the basis for O'Neill's assessment of his fitness for high office.
On closer inspection, though, I saw that it wasn't O'Neill who had lied about the nature of his relationship to John Kerry. It was the Wall Street Journal. The pull-quote did not appear in O'Neill's commentary. Which is to say the pull-quote was not a quote at all. It wasn't even a paraphrase. It was hard to escape the thought that the Journal had hyped O'Neill's piece to give him greater authority than he actually possessed.
I wasn't the only one who noticed. After firing off a letter upbraiding the Journal for its sloppy, if not unscrupulous, handling of the pull-quote (it ran a week later), I found Thomas Lang's "Campaign Desk" column on the subject in the online edition of the Columbia Journalism Review, posted May 4. The headline: "Ambush by Pull-Quote." Kevin Drum, writing in the online edition of Washington Monthly, cited Lang. A handful of bloggers picked up on it also. One, Bill Dennis, who calls himself the "Peoria Pundit," headlined his entry "A Little Dishonesty at the Wall Street Journal."
Two obvious questions were: Had the Journal been doing this sort of thing routinely? And had it now learned its lesson?
I looked at every Journal editorial page from late January of 2004 to mid-August-three months before and after the publication of the O'Neill commentary. I found that the Journal, like many papers, is indeed very fond of piquing reader interest by displaying a line or two out of at least one of its daily guest commentaries. Very few of these teasers actually are quotes, however. Most were paraphrases that hewed quite closely to the writer's words. In several cases even very slight changes-subbing a dash for a comma-were enough to prompt the Journal to remove quotation marks. In three cases where quotation marks were used, the pull-out was, in fact, identical to the text.
But I also found two instances where a paraphrase was presented within quotation marks. Josﾂ Marﾡa Aznar, the former prime minister of Spain, had written: "Many of us in Spain feel ashamed about the withdrawal of our troops from Iraq." But the pull-quote read: "Many of us in Spain feel ashamed about our troop withdrawal from Iraq."
The other was attached to a piece by James Lilley, who had written: "Our experience tells us that Americans usually are not smart enough to master the intricacies of Chinese history." The pull-quote version: "Americans aren't usually smart enough to master the intricacies of Chinese history."
The discrepancies were significant only insofar as they highlighted the Journal's inconsistency in its use of quotation marks around pull-outs. Both the Aznar and Lilley pieces ran in April-just before the mini-flap over John O'Neill's commentary. Since O'Neill, three true pull-quotes have been exact and paraphrases have been accurate. (The Wall Street Journal's editorial page editor did not respond to my E-mailed questions about whether the paper has tightened or enforced its standards since May).
Well, perhaps the Journal can be forgiven for flagrantly misusing the pull-quote once in six months. But lapses in journalistic ethics, however rare, are never unique. I ran across a number of Web sites devoted to graphic design that touted pull-quotes as a cool tool for increasing the chances of busy newspaper scanners actually reading what's on the printed page. None of them cautioned that such design elements should be subject to the same rigorous standards of accuracy as the copy itself.
So allow me to propose a rule:
Matter that appears without quotation marks should either be an accurate synopsis of the whole or an accurate paraphrase of a key point. Matter that appears in quotation marks should be copied directly from the body of the piece.
In their eagerness to increase readership, editors must never misrepresent what their writers have written. In this instance, the outcome of a presidential election could hang in the balance.
The above article was published in Media Ethics , Fall 2004 (16:1), pp.14,34.