By altering quotations and the circumstances in which they were said, author Janet Malcolm defamed psychoanalyst Jeffrey Masson in a New Yorker magazine article. That was the conclusion reached by a jury this week in a celebrated libel case. The jury's inability to agree on how much Mr. Masson should collect is a side issue to all but the protagonists and their lawyers.
Some quotes attributed to Mr. Masson were not always the words he used, nor were they always uttered at the time or circumstances described in the article. That's bad journalism. That's misleading the reader. That is not, in our view, truthful.
In the jury's eyes, Mr. Masson was damaged by the doctored quotes, even if jurors could not agree on the amount of monetary damage. The New Yorker's readers were damaged, too, though the magazine itself was held not legally responsible.
Most of us learned in grade school that quotation marks are placed around words that a person uttered. The corollary, which many of our teachers innocently thought need not be expressed, is that words inside quotation marks actually were said, just that way. Maybe -- just maybe -- a quotation can be "cleaned up" to remove an ambiguity or perhaps to correct a grammatical or syntax error that serves only to embarrass the person quoted. But that's it, if a writer or editor remains within the limits of ethical journalism.
The New Yorker has long held a special place in U.S. journalism and contemporary literature. Some revered it; serious readers of periodicals greatly respected it. So it is all the more shocking to learn how cavalierly quotations were doctored, by editors as well as writers. Composites are not wholly accurate representations. They are approximations. That is not what a reader expects inside quotation marks, nor is it what the New Yorker's readers expected in articles of factual reporting.
So the real loser in this case is not Ms. Malcolm, it is the magazine -- even if the jury did let it off the hook. Whatever its fate under new leadership, the luster of its golden years is dimmed. Those of us who practice journalism in other publications are losers, too. If the New Yorker did not respect the sacredness of a quote, who does?
We can answer that we don't report or edit that way, but we won't always get the benefit of the doubt that has been implanted in readers by the actions of Ms. Malcolm and the New Yorker.