Malicious Misquotations

June 27, 1991

The Supreme Court has ruled that a journalist may be sued for deliberately misquoting someone in a way that results "in a material change in the meaning conveyed by the statement." Such an alteration is evidence of "actual malice" -- knowledge that one's reporting is false or a reckless disregard for whether the article is true or false. "Actual malice" is the standard journalists writing about public figures have lived with for a generation in the area of defamation.

All nine justices agreed the case should go to trial, that the First Amendment does not apply. Two justices would have allowed a trial even if the misquote had not materially changed the meaning.

The case involves made-up and misleading quotations by author Janet Malcolm in an article (and later a book) for the New Yorker magazine about psychiatric scholar Jeffrey Masson. At least they appear to us to be made up and misleading. The magazine is famous for its detailed fact-checking system. But when, before publication, Mr. Masson denied making these statements, the New Yorker editors apparently took Ms. Malcolm's word for it that she had everything she quoted him as saying on tape. After he sued, her tapes revealed distortions of the quotations, which in our view demeaned and may well have illegally defamed Dr. Masson. That is a matter of fact for a trial jury to decide.

As journalists we know that quotations often have to be edited for purposes of grammar, syntax, redundancy and so forth. We also know that quotation marks convey such credibility, such authority to a story, particularly a biographical one, that they have to be used fairly and honestly. As the Supreme Court noted, one review of the book said, "Masson. . . emerges gradually as a grandiose egotist -- mean-spirited, self-serving, full of braggadocio, impossibly arrogant and, in the end, a self-destructive fool. But it is not Janet Malcolm who calls him such: his own words reveal this psychological profile." If, in fact, those were not his own words nor even an approximation of them, but Janet Malcolm's, he deserves his day in court. The First Amendment does not stretch that far.

In its discussion of using false quotes to give the wrong "meaning" to a statement, the Supreme Court said, "an exact quotation out of context can distort meaning." In the context of the opinion, that could be read to mean that even truthful reporting of comments could be libelous. Is this an overly-sensitive reading of the opinion? Maybe, but in another recent decision, the justices ruled that a newspaper could be sued for truthful reporting.

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