I thought that I was done with the Mohave Desert cross story until I started digging a bit deeper into the Washington Post. That’s when I ran into an interesting collision between two different accounts of the same pivotal statement by the ever quotable Justice Antonin Scalia.
If you read many mainstream accounts of the testimony yesterday, you will have seen references to the verbal sparring match between the articulate and sometimes acidic Catholic justice and Peter J. Eliasberg, who was representing the American Civil Liberties Union.
Let’s start with the basic, solid news story from reporter Robert Barnes, which ran under the headline, “Court Wades Shallowly Into Church and State — Argument Over Cross on Public Land Deals Minimally With the Broader Issue.”
To get the journalistic point that I want to make, you need to see the whole exchange. Thus, here is a major chunk of that story:
Justices Wednesday seemed uninterested in reviewing the lower court’s decision, which found that a former park superintendent who objects to religious displays on public land is entitled to bring the lawsuit.
And only Justice Antonin Scalia seemed to want to decide the more basic question of whether the cross was unconstitutional in the first place. He had a testy exchange with Eliasberg about whether the symbol — which the lawyer said “signifies that Jesus is the son of God and died to redeem mankind for our sins” — could also double as a secular marker for the war dead of all faiths.
Scalia said the cross was the “common symbol of the resting place of the dead,” and asked, “What would you have them erect . . . some conglomerate of a cross, a Star of David, and you know, a Muslim half-moon and star?”
Eliasberg drew laughter from the crowded courtroom when he responded, “I have been in Jewish cemeteries. There is never a cross on a tombstone of a Jew.”
Scalia did not laugh. “I don’t think you can leap from that to the conclusion that the only war dead that that cross honors are the Christian war dead. I think that’s an outrageous conclusion,” he said.
Now, when using and evaluating that final Scalia quotation, it is crucial to identify the concept to which the word “that” points in the final sentence. In other words, “I think that‘s an outrageous conclusion. Clearly, Scalia is saying — you do not have to agree with him here — that it is outrageous to conclude that this particular cross was only intended as memorial to honor Christians (plural) who died in World War I, as opposed to Americans who died in that war. Again, you do not have to agree with him (I am not sure at all that I do, for example). We are dealing with a journalistic question.
Now, let’s look at how the same exchange was reported in an analysis piece by Dana Milbank. I realize that he is a columnist at the Post. My concern does not focus on his opinion, but on how he handled this crucial exchange, in terms of reflecting what Scalia was actually saying in his argument.
So here we go again, back into the court session:
“The cross doesn’t honor non-Christians who fought in the war?” the Catholic justice asked with incredulity.
“I believe that’s actually correct,” said Peter Eliasberg of the American Civil Liberties Union, the son and grandson of Jewish war veterans.
“Where does it say that?” Scalia demanded to know.
“It doesn’t say that,” Eliasberg admitted, “but a cross is the predominant symbol of Christianity, and it signifies that Jesus is the son of God and died to redeem mankind for our sins.”
This news enraged Scalia. “The cross is the most common symbol of the resting place of the dead,” he declared. “What would you have them erect … some conglomerate of a cross, a Star of David, and you know, a Muslim half-moon and star?”
“The cross is the most common symbol of the resting place of Christians,” Eliasberg corrected. “I have been in Jewish cemeteries. There is never a cross on a tombstone of a Jew.”
The audience laughed. “I think that’s an outrageous conclusion,” Scalia hissed.
Did you catch the edit that radically changes the meaning of Scalia’s words?
After this bad edit, the crucial word “that” points toward a different concept. Milbank quotes Scalia as saying that it is outrageous to conclude that it would not be wrong to place a cross on the individual (singular) tombstone of a Jewish veteran, instead of a Star of David.
That’s simply wrong and, to be blunt, a violation of one of the most important rules in journalism. You are not supposed to edit a person’s quote to make him say something that he did not say.
Without the first half of the Catholic justice’s quotation, you cannot know what he is saying. He certainly is not arguing that it would be right to put a cross on a Jewish tombstone. Instead, he is claiming — you do not have to agree with him — that it is outrageous to say that this cross raised by the World War I veterans was only placed on that chunk of Arizona desert rock to honor Christian veterans.
The “that” makes all the difference. It is a buried pronoun. Change the sentence in front of it and you change the meaning of the word.
How do you correct an error of this kind in the work of a columnist? That’s a question for the Post editors. But this should be corrected, unless the goal was to smear a U.S. Supreme Court justice.
Now, before you click “comment,” remember that you will not be offering your opinion of Scalia’s point of view. That is not the subject of this post. The goal is to focus on how the editing of his quotation did or did not change the meaning of his words in the crucial sentence: “I think that‘s an outrageous conclusion.”