Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Quoting quotations that aren't

A comparison of two recent PolitiFact ratings involving Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican Mike Pence

Fresh from our post about PolitiFact overlooking Democrat Tim Kaine's inaccurate version of something Republican Mike Pence said, we stumbled over another PolitiFact item showing PolitiFact applying a different standard.

Pence, during the vice-presidential debate, defended a Trump statement from an attack by Kaine. PolitiFact allowed that Pence's defense was valid since it addressed a flaw in Kaine's attack. But PolitiFact also charged that Pence misquoted Trump.


We will draw attention to the exact words PolitiFact uses, because when PolitiFact assures us in its statement of principles that "words matter," we expect PolitiFact to live up to the standards it applies to others.
Mike Pence was right to defend Donald Trump against critics who claim Trump characterized all Mexicans as rapists. But he's wrong to quote Trump as saying "many are good people."
In the case we evaluated hours ago, PolitiFact did not accuse Tim Kaine of misquoting Pence even though Kaine switched out a word from Pence's statement that changed the meaning.

How does PolitiFact judge when one person is quoting another?


Let's try a comparison between these two cases.

Kaine:

But Gov. Pence said, inarguably, Vladimir Putin is a better leader than President Obama."
Pence:
PENCE: He also said and many of them are good people. You keep leaving that out of your quote. And if you want me to go there, I’ll go there.
We used The New York Times' transcript of the vice-presidential debate because PolitiFact had three different versions of Pence's statement. The first one occurs in the article header and has an open quotation mark when Pence says "And":
"also said, ‘And many of them (Mexicans) are good people. You keep leaving that out of your quote."
The second one occurs in the body of the story and repeats the open quotation mark. But it adds a closed quotation mark after "people":
"He also said, ‘And many of them are good people.’ You keep leaving that out of your quote."
The third one occurs in PolitiFact's concluding paragraphs and has no quotation marks within the quotation:
"also said and many of them (Mexicans) are good people. You keep leaving that out of your quote."
The New York Times' version is correct, as is the third version from PolitiFact. The Times' version is correct because AP style reserves quotation marks for precise quotations, not paraphrases or summaries. It follows that AP style will forbid quotation within a quotation where the quotations are not exact. The New York Times follows that rule.

In practice, that means that a person writing in AP style can only justify using punctuation to create a quotation within a quotation when the speaker clearly indicates it is intended as a quotation ("And I quote ...") or where the writer confirms the quotation meets the style guideline's demand for accuracy. To illustrate, the punctuation for "Paul said 'Put the dandelions on the plate'" should ordinarily occur only when it is known that Paul said "Put the dandelions on the plate." Otherwise, the writer ought to assume the speaker is paraphrasing or summarizing: Paul said put the dandelions on the plate.

PolitiFact, judging from its three different attempts at punctuation, had trouble figuring out what to do with Pence's statement. Punctuating Pence's sentence to make a quotation within a quotation would certainly lend an air of authority to its fact check. Anyone with eyes would see clearly see from that version that Pence was trying to quote Trump precisely. So if Pence got the quotation wrong then PolitiFact could justifiably criticize him for it.

Objective fact checkers do not assume quotation if paraphrase or summary better fits the context. If it is possible the words were meant as a paraphrase or summary of another source, then the punctuation should reflect it, as in the version The New York Times published.

Substandard standards

PolitiFact had before it two cases where a candidate spoke of something another person said, where the words used did not match the original words.

Kaine was off by just one word, but PolitiFact did not punctuate Kaine's statement to make a quotation within a quotation.

Pence changed a word and left out two words, but PolitiFact punctuated Pence's statement to make a quotation within a quotation.

Why the difference in treatment?

Kaine's substitution of "better" for "stronger" in his paraphrase of Pence substantially changed Pence's meaning, as we explained in our earlier post.

Pence's substitution of "many" for "some" slightly changed Trump's meaning. Pence's paraphrase was objectively better justified than Kaine's.

PolitiFact did not penalize Kaine for misquoting Pence, for its story did not consider Kaine was quoting Pence.

PolitiFact charged Pence with misquoting Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.

Kaine received a "Mostly True" rating from PolitiFact.

Pence received a "Half True" rating from PolitiFact.

Pence's statement was more accurate, yet PolitiFact gave it a lower rating than Kaine's.

The only standard we can imagine that justifies these outcomes is the "Republicans lie more" standard. But an objective fact checker should reason from the outcome of numerous fact checks toward the conclusion "Republicans lie more," not reason from "Republicans lie more" to assigning lower fact check ratings for Republicans.

The latter represents a naked expression of ideological bias.

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