Saturday, August 25, 2007

One journalism post deserves another: ellipses

David Bernstein at The Volokh Conspiracy has something to say about the dishonest use of ellipses. This is the practice also known as Dowdification, named after Maureen Dowd of the New York Times, after her misrepresentation by way of ellipsis of a statement by President Bush, summed up thus by Brendan Nyhan back in 2003:

An outrageous new falsehood is circulating about President Bush. Last week, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd misrepresented a Bush statement to imply that he said the Al Qaeda terrorist network is "not a problem anymore," and the distorted quotation has since been repeated by MSNBC "Buchanan and Press" co-host Bill Press, CNN's Miles O'Brien and others, including numerous foreign press outlets. At a time when the New York Times is under fire for its conduct in the Jayson Blair scandal, Dowd's creation of an exploding media myth is cause for serious concern.

In her May 14 column (which was reprinted in newspapers around the country), Dowd wrote the following:

Busy chasing off Saddam, the president and vice president had told us that Al Qaeda was spent. "Al Qaeda is on the run," President Bush said last week. "That group of terrorists who attacked our country is slowly but surely being decimated... They're not a problem anymore."

But as Andrew Sullivan pointed out on his website (and later in his Washington Times column), these quotes was taken wildly out of context from a May 5 speech in Arkansas in which Bush said this:

Al Qaeda is on the run. That group of terrorists who attacked our country is slowly but surely being decimated. Right now, about half of all the top Al Qaeda operatives are either jailed or dead. In either case, they're not a problem anymore.

Bush was obviously saying that the Al Qaeda operatives who "are either jailed or dead" are "not a problem anymore," not that Al Qaeda itself is "not a problem."

(The links to the original Dowd column and to the Andrew Sullivan piece have evaporated, over the passage of time, but I have left them in the quote just to show that they once existed. If you want to pay $4.95 for the Dowd column, you can get it here. The whole Nyhan piece is worth reading anyway, for the sake of the etymology.)

In the comments on the Volokh post, Lev provides a handy definition:

dowdify v: to edit a quote so as to convey a different meaning from what was intended, primarily to damage the subject being quoted.
So what would you call the NPR approach to massaging the sound bites to make them smoother? It seems like a form of reverse dowdification, editing a quote so as to convey a more palatable impression than what was actually said, primarily to make the subject being quoted look good, which is still dishonesty or deception.

It's a pity: that word ought to mean something like "disguising oneself by wearing one's grandmother's clothes." Can you use it in a sentence? "I think I'll dowdify myself for the school board meeting tonight," said Madonna.

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