Tuesday, June 28, 2011

the difference between academia and journalism?

I have friends who are journalists. I like them a lot. I hope that none of them would ever, ever deliberately misquote someone they've interviewed.

I was asked to discuss Neil Gaiman's American Gods by a journalist writing for the Cleveland Plain-Dealer. The  journalist asked several questions by e-mail and asked that I respond very swiftly to them. I did because I like to be helpful.

The journalist--who has no excuse because my words were right there in his e-mail--misquoted me. He writes:

Not everyone loved "American Gods" a decade ago. In his introduction to the new edition, Gaiman mentions that some critics complained the book was "not American enough"; others "that it was too American."
Robert Geraci, a religious studies professor at Manhattan College, believes he knows why.
"I think Gaiman's book may not please those who believe there is an America," he said. "However, as a Brit who's lived in America for a long time, Gaiman can see things about our culture that we can't -- or that we prefer to ignore. In showing us the real complexity of America, which includes the America of recent British immigrants as well as the America of the First Peoples, Gaiman can't help but annoy those who prefer a mythic America that is uniform and coherent." 

What I actually said--in response to whether or not Gaiman's book is "not American enough" or "too American"--is:

debates over what is "american" are muddled from the start, as "americanness," if anything, means a conglomerate of cultural practices, ideas, and institutions. while American Gods omits some of these (such as the overwhelming presence of protestant christianity), it captures the essence of the u.s. as a "melting pot." ... gaiman's book is not a perfect snapshot of american life (what would be?), but it does brilliantly explore our cultural heritage(s) by situating america in the long history of religions and peoples."

There are some reasonably significant differences between what I said and what the piece's author attributes to me and you'll note that I don't anywhere claim that this issue is the reason why some people didn't like the book (which a reader could reasonably infer from what was written). I was asked about whether particular criticisms of the book were valid and asked how I would respond to people who held them. My answer fits that question, not the one I am possibly alleged to be addressing.

More to the point, there are some very significant ethical issues in claiming that you're quoting someone when in fact you are not. In my classes ... I call this sort of thing lying and I fail students for it.


  1. It's even more serious than "lying," it's fabrication of evidence--something for which students should not just fail but face disciplinary action for an ethics breach. There's no difference, in my mind, between this and making stuff up completely (i.e., The Glass Affair at the New Republic, Jayson Blair, etc.). It might be worse, because it has the ring of truth to it, and really twists around an actual person's words. I'm sorry that happened.

  2. Yeah, this is bullshit. Off with his head.

  3. And this journalist writes for the Plain-Dealer. No irony there, then.

  4. anything put in quotation marks is supposed to be a direct quote - this is pretty much the first thing you learn in a basic journalism course. He's made crap up & not even bothered to use the tabloid approved 'a source close to xxx said...' No excuses for such blatant fictionalising of opinions expressed in an interview.

  5. Is it possible that he interviewed multiple people and is misattributing a quote from someone else? Still very sloppy, but not nearly as egregious as making up a quote from whole cloth.

  6. I hope he just mis-attributed the quote, and it belongs to someone else. It's only vaguely similar to the original. Otherwise, that's a poor excise for journalism, and he doesn't know what quotes mean.

  7. It seems rather ironic that the mendacious journalist in question, Bill Eichenberger, was working as a guest writer on behalf of a publication called the "Plain-Dealer" given that his dealings were anything other than plain.

  8. Apologies for repeating the ironic assertion; I was busy doing my research to ensure I had my facts correct, unlike Mr E.

  9. Why?
    Why, when almost everything we type, do or say is recorded, why do people insist on lying, cheating and fabricating?
    A mistake? Perhaps, but it would have to he one helluva drunken mistake.
    Hubris and denial are not a pretty combination especially when the truth would have been a much better read.

  10. Have you checked to make sure he's not stuck your name on somebody else's quote?

  11. Warren Olin-AmmentorpJuly 2, 2011 at 6:09 AM

    That is actually what happened. The words were mine. The author emailed me yesterday to apologize. He said "
    I just wanted to apology for a horrible gaffe I made in my "American Gods" piece that ran recently in the Plain Dealer. Somehow I took something brilliant you said (about there not being "an" America but many Americas) and attributed it to Robert Geraci. I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me for such a bone-headed mistake."
    I would hope he'd contact you as well.

  12. i did get an apology from the author, so i accepted it.

    oddly, his next e-mail was to lambast me for pointing out that i'd been misquoted on my blog. i told him that this didn't seem particularly appropriate after i'd accepted an apology from him...but such is life