Quote unquote

Professional athletes, with whom I have a fleeting familiarity, sometimes say stupid-ass things. Once in a while they’re trying to be funny and fall embarrassingly flat. More often, they’re blithely aiming for intelligent and thoughtful, and instead land on stupid-ass and shallow.

Now they may be tired, or annoyed, or mad, which might explain their ignorant public comments. Many times they just don’t give a damn, replying only because a question was asked and answering is in the job description. As a result, these fonts of fluff splurt out the first set of consonants and vowels that will serve as an end to their inquisition and move them a step closer to beer and a bed.

These, of course, are athletes. What they have to say often isn’t all that important anyway. Still, for a sports writer listening to a predictable bit of spewage, you’re immediately faced with a question:

How do you quote that? DO you quote that?

Journalists have this discussion all the time; how to accurately portray what a subject says and, more to the point, whether to portray it at all. Let me give you an example:

Generally, journalists almost always clean up quotes. We take out the “you knows” and “ummmms.” Splice together divergent thoughts with ellipses. Touch up grammar. Correct misspeaks.

It’s not done, at least not normally, in some friendly attempt to make a person “look good.” It’s done, simply, to make things easier for the reader. Stutters are smoothed over. Awkward pauses are condensed. Asides are eliminated. You quote what is meant (which is, almost always, easy enough to determine), not what, you know, actually is said. I’ve found that the person being interviewed, almost all of the time, appreciates that.

The discussion journalists often don’t have, though, and I think we should, is this one:

If a subject says something stupid, something offensive, something idiotic, something shocking or something simply unintelligible while trying to get to that beer or a floor vote or the set of a movie, do you use the quote at all?

If it’s said with a bravado that you know that he (or she) may not really possess, if it’s something that could land him (or her) in a load of publicity crap, do you use the quote? Accurately? Without any varnish?

If so, when do simply call BS, recognize what is said as being a load of garbage and just ignore it? Do you use a damning comment — say an offhand, heat-of-the-moment, angry one — even if you know it’s something that, given the chance, the subject would retract in a second?

This is one of journalism’s many tricky, tricky slopes. It’s the front-line example of journalists acting as gatekeepers, deciding what makes it through to the reader and what doesn’t. And, believe it, a lot is stopped before it hits the notebook.

Of course, not all trips of the tongue are stifled by the press. Sometimes, the statement is so blatant, the slip so severe, that you quote, accurately, and let the spit hit the fan.

This made it into the news back in 2016:

It’s very close to my heart because I was down there, and I watched our police and our firemen down at 7/11, down at the World Trade Center right after it came down, and I saw the greatest people I’ve ever seen in action.

Most people realized then, and now, that this was an innocent slip of the tongue by an unpracticed politician. But, then as now, few were willing to give Donald Trump a break. So it made its way all over the news.

More challenging is this, again from Trump. It’s a doozy that was broken down by a linguist in The New York Times earlier this year:

Look, having nuclear – my uncle was a great professor and scientist and engineer, Dr. John Trump at M.I.T.; good genes, very good genes, O.K., very smart, the Wharton School of finance, very good, very smart – you know, if you’re a conservative Republican, if I were a liberal, if, like, O.K., if I ran as a liberal Democrat, they would say I’m one of the smartest people anywhere in the world – it’s true! – but when you’re a conservative Republican they try – oh, they do a number – that’s why I always start off: “Went to Wharton, was a good student, went there, went there, did this, built a fortune” – you know I have to give my life credentials all the time, because we’re a little disadvantaged – but you look at the nuclear deal, the thing that really bothers me …

How are you supposed to convey what the president of the United States means there? What the heck do you do with that?

(In the NYT piece, linguist John McWhorter concludes that Trump’s frothing speech is not a sign of him losing his mental edge but gaining the confidence that comes with age and identity.  “Late in life an artless man has learned that he could leave his linguistic fly unzipped and life would go on,” McWhorter writes. “It may not be pretty, but it isn’t a sign that his pants are going to fall down.”)

(Not for nothing, an online database parsed many of Trump’s early speeches and determined that he speaks at a reading level of someone in the third to seventh grade. Sad!)

Then you have the off-hand comments that public people often utter that, before they’ve barely cleared the lips, blast into headlines. Sean Spicer, the former presidential press secretary, said this in decrying Syria’s use of chemical weapons in 2017:

We didn’t use chemical weapons in World War II. You know, you had someone as despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons.

Ooof. Gas chambers, Sean? The holocaust, Sean?

This is a little different because this was said from a podium to several reporters, and in the frenzy surrounding Trump, there was no chance this would slide by. Journalists, to their credit, gave Spicer a chance to dig himself out. He only dug himself in further.

The media let him have it. Mercilessly. The New York Times. CNN. The Washington Post.

(Later, Spicer owned up: “I got into a topic that I shouldn’t have and I screwed up.” Too late.)

White House press availabilities aside, there are times when a public figure says something and a journalist, as a gatekeeper, has that immediate decision to make. Clean up or not. Quote or not quote.

Pocket it or put it out there. Go easy or let ’em burn.

It’s never a simple call. I’ve seen it, as another Sean would say, both ways.

Years ago, a Sports Illustrated reporter spent an afternoon with a racist, homophobic reliever for the Braves in a semi-terrifying car ride around Atlanta (which, honestly, describes most trips around Atlanta). The reporter had a choice: He could just ignore the rantings of a jacked-up young idiot who considered himself bulletproof. The fledgling journalist could at least tone down the ignorant ramblings of an ignorant boy.

But, as gatekeeper, Jeff Pearlman and his editors decided (correctly) that John Rocker was a public figure, that he knew what he was saying and that he deserved what was coming to him.

They quoted him extensively, Rocker became a baseball pariah and that was that.

From the story:

The biggest thing I don’t like about New York are the foreigners. I’m not a very big fan of foreigners. You can walk an entire block in Times Square and not hear anybody speaking English. Asians and Koreans and Vietnamese and Indians and Russians and Spanish people and everything up there. How the hell did they get in this country?


Pearlman and the editors at SI had every right to play that the way they played it. Many others would have done the same thing.

Faced with those same circumstances, I probably would have made a different call. I’d have probably told the editors that this guy is a redneck racist and not worth the newsprint.

I’ve spent a lot of time — maybe too much time — in locker rooms and around professional athletes. I’ve back-pocketed misogynistic, racist, ignorant, damning quotes plenty of times because I thought that the subject really didn’t believe what was coming out of his mouth or that he really wouldn’t say that if a second of thought was given before the mouth opened.

Mostly I’ve turned away from angry, rude, hateful subjects when I could have exposed them in full because … why? Why would I air their ignorant views? Better to keep that off my platform and move on, I figure. Lots of other stories worth telling out there.

Maybe I’m wrong. I absolutely could be. I often think I am. I probably could have written a few more big-headline pieces if I’d have been a little less careful with my gatekeeping responsibilities.

But, in my mind, it all comes back to this: Most of what most people have to say isn’t all that important anyway.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s