Misquotes That Refuse to Die

Things that David Plouffe, Captain Kirk, and others didn’t say

Back in 2009, Barack Obama’s presidential campaign manager, David Plouffe, said some rather kind words about Utah governor Jon Huntsman, and he has probably been regretting them ever since.

As detailed this week by The New York Times Magazine’s Matt Bai, Plouffe’s comments were mangled into an erroneous quote that has been republished in outlets including The Economist, Newsweek, UPI, and The Salt Lake Tribune, among others.

All have repeated the claim that Plouffe said the prospect of facing Huntsman as the Republican challenger in 2012 made him “a wee bit queasy.” In fact, as Bai revealed, a journalist with U.S. News & World Report wrote those words. Plouffe never said it. But the writer’s line was soon attributed to Huntsman, and that in turn led to the conclusion that Obama named Huntsman U.S. Ambassador to China to keep him away from domestic politics and the Republican nomination.

Well, Huntsman is in the race and now we know Plouffe doesn’t get queasy at the thought of facing him. Or at least he has never said so publicly. No, scratch that—I don’t want to further entrench this idea. Let’s try this: David Plouffe is totally jacked about the idea of seeing Huntsman go up against Obama in 2012.

For the record, here is what Plouffe actually said about Huntsman back in 2009, according to the report by U.S. News & World Report:

I think the one person in that party who might be a potential presidential candidate is Gov. Jon Huntsman of Utah. I think he’s really out there and speaking a lot of truth about the direction of the party.

Kind of makes you kind of wonder why Democrats didn’t seize upon the actual quote that Plouffe thinks Huntsman is “really out there.”

Out there along with Huntsman are a multitude of other misquotes that refuse to die. There’s a Wikipedia page dedicated to famous misquotes from history and pop culture. (No, Captain Kirk never said “Beam me up, Scotty” in the original Star Trek series. Sherlock Holmes never declared something “Elementary, my dear Watson.”) There’s also this recent collection of famous political misquotes from the Christian Science Monitor. Or this previous column of mine that looked at an objectionable misquote attributed to an Israeli military leader. It took years to debunk and get corrected by media outlets, but it will probably never really die.

More recently, a quote from Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was melded with a comment by a woman on Facebook to create a misquote that went viral in the wake of the killing of Osama Bin Laden.

While researching my book about media errors and corrections I visited the Hearst tower in New York to interview the head of the research (fact checking) department at Esquire magazine. I asked him to name a category of fact that journalists tend to get wrong. Famous quotations, he said immediately.

Journalists should be wary of using seemingly famous quotes because they so often turn out to be manufactured or inexact representations. We should also guard against them because they are a crutch, an easy anecdote or pre-fab phrase that gets inserted in place of reporting or true insight.

Over years and decades, these misquotes are polished into little gems that supposedly tell a story in just a few words. They lodge themselves in our culture and consciousness. Then they take on new life thanks to the Internet.

It’s no surprise, then, that journalism historian W. Joseph Campbell included a couple of major misquotes in his recent book, Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism. He reveals that President Johnson never uttered the words, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” Campbell also lays waste to the infamous quote from William Randolph Hearst, “You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war.”

Both are myths that speak to the power of the press. So, too, is the Huntsman misquote. For the past two years, its repetition by the press played a small part in helping keep his name on the lips of pundits and political junkies.

The challenge now is that Bai’s post about the quote is but a lone item. It will take a persistent approach to debunking to stop making Plouffe queasy. It won’t be easy. Twenty-four hours before Bai’s post was published, The Christian Science Monitor published an article, “Election 101: Ten facts about Jon Huntsman and his presidential campaign.” Fact number four in the online version included the misquote. (The queasy quote was part of fact number seven in print.)

The same day as Bai’s post went live, an artcle in The Daily Telegraph repeated it again:

The White House views Mr Huntsman as one of the most formidable potential opponents in a general election. David Plouffe, Mr Obama’s campaign manager, has stated that running against Mr Huntsman made him feel “a wee bit queasy”.

As of this writing, neither piece has been corrected.

Correction of the Week

The article “Game on in Dickson’s twilight zone” (June 23, p4) incorrectly reported the 2011 Canberra Roleplaying and Games Festival Triptych theme as “immorality.”

The theme was “immortality”. - The Canberra Times

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

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