‘That’ really bad Scalia edit

us-supreme-courtI 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.

55562033Did 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.”

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://kingslynn.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    Ouch. Have they put up a correction yet?

  • Dave

    I agree, the columnist’s rearrangement of Scalia’s words is downright dishonest.

    My concern does focus on his opinion

    I think you meant does not focus on his opinion.

  • Martha

    Never mind the edits, can we get a plain version of “he said/he said” instead of “demanded, enraged and hissed” on the one part, and “admitted and corrected” on the other?

    If the reporter wants to write the Great American Novel, let him do it on his own time!

    (Sorry, but this is one of the basic stylistic bugbears in writing, and one most style manuals advise should never be done).

    And really – “hissed”? Trying “hissing” words without sibilants, and see how far you get. Is Dana Milbank a Dan Brown wannabe?

  • Bern

    The edit is outrageous. About as outrageous as Scalia’s real opinion (“I don’t think that . . .” ). Also the word “hissed” to characterize the manner of Scalia’s delivery–this is not op-ed writing, it’s polemical. Retraction should come soon!

  • Dave G.

    I agree with Martha. Hissed? He hissed?

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    DAVE:

    Thanks for the heads up. I was in class and couldn’t get away to fix it. It’s done.

  • liberty

    I was really struck by the use of ‘hissed’ as well.

    What a great way to make the Justice seem extra evil and snakelike.

  • Jerry

    I’m sure I’m not alone with the experience of reporters misquoting someone’s words. My wife had that experience. It was exactly that kind of small misquote that happened in this case. So I have a process question. When was the transcript available, before or after the story was published? If before, then clearly a reporter should have fact checked his write-up.

    The second question I have is about the word “hiss”. Did he actually hiss or is that a biased representation of how he made his comments? And, in a broader context, how should reporters deal with the emotion that comes with speech? If I read that someone angrily said something, I might attach a different meaning to the words than if I read an account that did not have angrily. I think this is a tricky area because obviously reportorial bias can creep in.

  • Brian Walden

    Stepping back a bit, there’s the huge issue of assigning any one particular meaning to any symbol. A symbol has no meaning in and of itself.

    I think at the very least situations like this have to be dealt with on a case by case basis looking at what the people using the symbol mean by it. I don’t think Scalia nor Eliasberg can define what the Mojave cross means – only the people who erected it can do that.

  • Chris

    Obviously, Justice Scalia must have hissed, thusly:
    “I think that’sss an outrageousss conclusssion, my Presssciousss.”

  • Martha

    Chris, it does strike me as “I think that’s an outrageous conclusion,” hissed the evil, black-clad figure from his elevated seat on the dias as he twirled his moustache with one hand whilst the other stroked his white cat, and his minions stoked the fire beneath the cauldron of boiling oil as he looked down upon the heroic ACLU representative.” :-)

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Martha, et al:

    … hissed the evil, black-clad Catholic from …

    Oh, wait. He had already been called a Catholic just a few lines earlier. I forgot.

  • Martha

    tmatt, surely we can work in “Jesuitical” somewhere there? Or “Inquistion”? “Casuistry” is good too!

    “I think that’s an outrageous conclusion,” hissed the evil figure clad in black quasi-clerical robes as he subjected the heroic ACLU representative to all the rigours of the Inquistion, using casuistry to advance his Jesuitical arguments against all that was good, decent and true.

  • Chris

    Dan Brown should pay attention. The Supreme Court has potential to appear as THE source of queasy, ill-defined, and all-pervasive evil in his next novel. Besides, it might be a thrill for the justices. :-)

  • http://www.freikirchen.at Wolf Paul

    Others have noted the odd choice of verb to describe Justice Scalia’s speech. To me that does indicate an intention to smear the Justice, and I would be very surprised if a correction or apology were forthcoming.

  • James Manley

    The key word being “that,” I’m not sure how the word could be hissed.

  • http://www.biblebeltblogger.com Frank Lockwood

    Believe it or not, Antonin Scalia deserves some of the credit for this apparent mis-quote. Nobody has fought harder to prevent the media from filming, photographing, taping or digitally recording arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court.

    I suggested to him, during a law school forum at the University of Michigan, that it might be healthy to allow some type of recordings to be made, so average Americans could see for themselves what the Court is doing rather than getting it through a media filter. He pretty gruffly dismissed the suggestion, arguing that if the proceedings were recorded and made available to the public, that it could have a negative impact.

    When you ban digital recorders from the Court, you increase the chances that there’ll be misquotes or quotes taken out of context.

  • Dave

    When you ban digital recorders from the Court, you increase the chances that there’ll be misquotes or quotes taken out of context.

    And you increase the motivation for a reporter to try to convey atmospherics of a quote that the bare words alone don’t, with a verb like “hissed.”

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson

    I think at the very least situations like this have to be dealt with on a case by case basis looking at what the people using the symbol mean by it. I don’t think Scalia nor Eliasberg can define what the Mojave cross means – only the people who erected it can do that.

    Some literary theorists would disagree with that idea. Which brings me to the real question: How many semioticians were called as expert witnesses? :)

  • http://nathanrein.com Nathan Rein

    I’m just seeing this post now. Wow, tmatt, great catch. I wish I had an eye like yours. I don’t think I ever would have spotted the edit.

  • Xan

    If you read many mainstream accounts of the testimony yesterday . . . .

    Just a quibble for the sake of accuracy. There was no testimony in the Supreme Court. Testimony means evidence in the form of sworn statements from witnesses; testimony is given in the trial courts, not the appellate courts. The Court heard oral arguments.

    Believe it or not, Antonin Scalia deserves some of the credit for this apparent mis-quote. Nobody has fought harder to prevent the media from filming, photographing, taping or digitally recording arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court.

    Frank, the transcript of the oral argument was available at the Supreme Court’s website soon after the argument — that afternoon, I believe. I referred to it after reading the first news report about the exchange between J Scalia and Eliasberg.


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