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Unquotable politicians

Many politicians, I think you would agree, have a knack for public speaking — or at least have attended enough Toastmasters meetings to be able to deliver a passable speech.

There are some, of course, who simply have nothing to say.

And there are plenty, especially nowadays, who rely on aides and speechwriters to drill into them a few basic cliches so that, no matter what question is asked of them, they can spew forth some memorized phrases.

But then there are those who are simply unquotable.

Reporters jot down notes and hold out recorders, and they believe they understand the gist of what the politician is saying. But when it comes time to write the story, no matter how many times they flip through those notes or rewind the recording, they can’t find a string of words to use verbatim that convey the thought.

Sometimes it’s just a mangling of English. I remember a county commissioner who, every year at budget time, would talk about the line item for “clergical staff.” No matter how many times the county manager would correctly refer to them as clerical staff, this good ol’ boy would come back with a reference to “clergical staff.” I couldn’t help but smile because, you know, I was thinking to myself that the county probably could use some help from a minister or priest.

Other times, especially if they’ve been in government for very long, politicians will speak in a string of acronyms and jargon that is incomprehensible to the general public. “The ETA for the EIS from the EPA on this BuRec project for the SWWCD is likely next cycle.” If you were a reporter on the water beat for a few years, you might be able to make sense of it.

I remember trying to cover a hospital board meeting one evening. They were speaking an entirely different language.

I was reminded of my days trying to decipher elected and would-be public officials when I came across this quote from President Trump during a ceremony on plans for a new industrial plant in Wisconsin.

“His great company has seen our — you know, you see exactly what I’m saying — our administration’s work to remove job-killing regulations — he’s been watching — to institute Buy American and Hire American, and all of those policies, and to pursue the steps necessary to revitalize American industry, including repealing and replacing Obamacare — we better get that done, fellas, please,” Trump said, according to the White House’s website.

Now, if you follow the link and read all the remarks, you’ll likely be able to pull a few phrases that would convey Trump’s meaning.

But if you’ve listened to him speak off the cuff, you know that his is a rambling discourse that tends to convey the feeling of what he’s trying to express while seldom ever putting actual descriptive words to it, beyond the all-inclusive “good” or “sad” or “tremendous.”

The transcript of the Wall Street Journal’s recent interview with the president was another example. Here’s an exchange where the WSJ’s editor, Gerard Baker, asks him what he’s been doing to persuade senators to vote in favor of a health-care bill.

BAKER: I mean, what do you think the crucial conversations have been?

TRUMP: Many conversations. I just had one with a certain senator that was very convincing to that senator. So I’ve done a lot. I mean, last night — last night it was amazing. I was at the — you know, I was in West Virginia doing certain things and making a speech to the Boy Scouts, and that was some crowd. That was an incredible crowd.

So, what do you do?

As a reporter and an editor, I had many conversations about direct quotes. You want them; you need them. They bring stories to life — but only when they are meaningful. Too often, they’re thrown into stories just because it seems like a quote is needed somewhere in there. But quoting Trump as saying “I’ve done a lot” to advance the health-care bill doesn’t add much to the story.

The alternative, of course, is to paraphrase. It’s what good reporters are supposed to do: Summarize, clarify, elucidate and put the information in context. You should be able to write it better than they said it.

But you often need their exact words, especially elected officials. They need to be on the record. No matter how well you think you understood what they were saying, you are writing through the filter of your own words. So direct quotes are crucial.

Quoting verbatim

But are they the exact words?

As you can see from those transcripts, if you do try to quote people verbatim — even from a recording — you quickly realize their sentences are usually full of “uhh” and “you know,” they start and stop in midstream, they use incorrect grammar, and you don’t get a sense of inflection. Plus, it’s entirely possible to take a direct quote out of context and make it mean the opposite of the intent.

So my argument was that a direct quote was almost never a verbatim quote, but it could be used in quotation marks if it accurately conveyed the meaning using the words the speaker used.

Did I clean up quotes? Absolutely. I fixed grammar. I skipped irrelevant phrases in the middle of the sentence. “Well, as I was saying, uh, the other day, this is the biggest, you know, probably the biggest election, those of us here at this office anyway, have faced” might become “This is probably the biggest election we have faced.”

Was I being dishonest? I don’t think so. Was the person going to come back and claim he was misquoted? Not if I got it right. Say, for example, I had left out the word “probably.” Then he could make a case that he never said it was the biggest election. That would be significant, in my mind.

Short of publishing a transcript, you’re always editing out what’s less important in favor of what’s more important. In fact, many of the interview transcripts I read online are edited for clarity and for grammar and to remove the gibberish.

The whole point is to serve the reader, not the speaker. The right editing serves both.

I think we’re seeing these transcripts of Trump for three reasons: 1) He is hard follow, jumping from topic to topic in mid-sentence, like the Boy Scouts reference above. 2) He frequently mischaracterizes what he has said, or says the opposite. And 3) He often makes a point of trying to contradict what was reported by the press.

It can be a disservice to the reading public if you, as a reporter, always clean up the language of an elected official and make him sound better than he does. As somebody once told me after hearing that “clergical” county commissioner speak in a meeting for the first time: “Holy cow! I have no idea what he just said.”

Convey the meaning, accurately and honestly, in their own words when possible.

Barry Smith

Barry Smith, a former reporter and editor in Illinois, Colorado and Nevada, is executive director of the Nevada Press Association.


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