Don’t (Mis)quote Me

The demise of an error that refused to die

It’s the kind of quote that makes readers sit up and pay attention.

In 2002, Moshe Yaalon, then the chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, sat down with a reporter from Haaretz and unleashed a sound bite that continues to resonate to this day.

“The Palestinians must be made to understand in the deepest recesses of their consciousness that they are a defeated people,” Yaalon said.

Or, to be more accurate, it’s what he’s said to have said.

Yaalon never uttered those words. Yet this alarming misquote ended up in papers such as The New York Times, Boston Globe, and the Toronto Star, as well as in Time. Published once, a misquote becomes seen as true. From there, it spreads like swine flu. Fact-checking is the best prevention, but what if you check a quote and discover it has already appeared in other papers? If you’re a reporter, columnist, or copy editor, you’ll probably go with it. (A professional fact checker, on the other hand, is trained not to treat a newspaper as a definitive source. Now you know why.)

Hopefully that won’t happen anymore. The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, or CAMERA, a media watchdog founded to combat what was perceived as anti-Israeli press coverage, managed to get each of the aforementioned publications to print corrections. The hope now is that anyone tempted to use the quote will encounter the corrections and be forewarned.

What’s interesting is that each paper had a different process for issuing a correction, and the resulting corrections also varied in their content—reinforcing the reality that we have yet to establish an industry standard. This is a source of frustration to readers, viewers, and listeners demanding satisfaction for a factual error.

Gilead Ini, a senior research analyst with CAMERA, published an article this week that includes a chart comparing the corrections earned from seven publications (The New York Times and International Herald Tribune are owned by the same company and therefore published the same correction.) They range from a detailed, informative correction in the Chicago Tribune to less diligent offerings in other publications.

“I think the process [for getting a correction] varied as dramatically as the corrections themselves,” Ini told me. “One does notice a big difference in how each individual paper reacts and follows up on the request for correction.”

Of note is the fact that two of the papers that seemed to do the best job handling the issue employ an ombudsman or a standards editor. This is important to keep in mind, given the ongoing disappearance of the newspaper ombudsman.

“To us, it seemed that the [Chicago] Tribune and Toronto Star corrections were the most thorough, and they also seemed to pursue it the most extensively and really tried to dig for the truth,” Ini said. “I wondered if one of reasons was that both have an editor whose role is to do this kind of thing.”

The Star even assigned a reporter to write a feature about the quote for this past Saturday’s paper. Among other details, the story explained why the quote appeared in the paper back in 2004. (The Star investigated the issue after CAMERA recently got in touch.) This, coupled with its clear and informative correction, should leave no doubt in the minds of readers about the nature of the mistake and the correct information.

On the other side of the divide, Ini says Time was particularly difficult to deal with. He had trouble finding someone with the power to issue a correction or that seemed interested in the inquiry. He eventually found a person who could help, and the result was this correction:

In “Lonesome Doves,” about Israeli West Bank settlers, we quoted a former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, Moshe Ya’alon, as saying, “It will be seared deep into the consciousness of Palestinians that they are a defeated people” [Feb. 2]. Though this quotation has been used widely over the years, the original source cannot be found, so Time should not have used it.

Time would have done a better service to readers by stating clearly that the quote was wholly incorrect. Some readers might read the above and go away thinking the quote could be true.

At this point, there’s no excuse for the quote to appear in the press. Thanks to CAMERA, and now the Toronto Star’s feature about the quote, we know it’s fake. (A spokesman for Yaalon emailed the Star to say, “I can confirm that he has never said the quote ever.”)

Ini’s account of the hoax quote on CAMERA’s website is headlined “Demise of a Hoax Quote.” He thinks there’s a good chance that this past week marks the demise of the quote that refused to die.

“The quote is not going to have the same life it had before,” he told me.

If that turns out to be true, he and his colleagues in the media watchdog business can chalk this one up as a victory. And then move on to their next correction request.

“The most encouraging thing is when we interact with editors at big and small papers and bring up an issue they say ‘thank you’,” he said. “I think a paper that runs corrections and tries to investigate complaints is really doing themselves a favor because it’s their reputation for accuracy that’s at play here.”

There’s a quote that bears repeating.

Correction of the Week

“A sub-headline on page one of last Tuesday’s Herald stated that Attorney General Martha Coakley broomed a conflict-of-interest investigation involving Suffolk University before accepting an honorary law degree from the school. The accompanying story reported that Coakley’s office had obtained concessions from Suffolk while concluding there were no illegalities committed in the case. The Herald regrets any confusion caused by the use of the term “broom.’” – Boston Herald

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Craig Silverman is the editor of and the author of Regret The Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech. He is also the editorial director of and a columnist for the Toronto Star.