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  A matter of punctuation
by Andy Dehnart
A  single word added by a journalist or editor into a quotation and then spread by the media has created a controversy. The wrong controversy.

Rick Santorum, a Republican Senator from Pennsylvania, is all over the news right now because of a comment he made in an interview Monday. Here’s what he said:

“If the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual [gay] sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery.”

Many reports summarized Santorum’s comments. For example, an AP story says that “he compared homosexuality to bigamy, polygamy, incest and adultery.” That would seem to be a fair assessment of the quotation above.

Except that’s not what he said. This is what he said, according to a transcript:

“And if the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery.”

Pretty similar, right? The first, widely published version of the quotation above is missing the leading “and.” Not a big deal. But it also adds “gay” in brackets in the middle of “consensual sex.”

And that changes everything.

As the transcript shows, his comments are in response to a question about homosexuality. But his answer doesn’t specifically mention that. In fact, it seems apparent that he was making much broader comments: “It all comes from, I would argue, this right to privacy that doesn’t exist in my opinion in the United States Constitution, this right that was created, it was created in Griswold — Griswold was the contraceptive case — and abortion.”

Later he says, “You say, well, it’s my individual freedom. Yes, but it destroys the basic unit of our society because it condones behavior that’s antithetical to strong healthy families. Whether it’s polygamy, whether it’s adultery, where it’s sodomy, all of those things, are antithetical to a healthy, stable, traditional family.”

Let’s be clear: Elsewhere in the interview, Santorum says things like “I have no problem with homosexuality. I have a problem with homosexual acts.” So clearly there’s material here worthy of criticism. But that’s not the part of the interview organizations like the Human Rights Campaign and Leadership Conference on Civil Rights focus on. As the primary source for their criticism, they use the comparison of “consensual [gay] sex” to adultery and bigamy — even though he never really said that.

And as the media reports on those organizations’ complaints, which are based upon the initial media coverage, many — though clearly not all — of the pieces have used the altered quote, and then summaries of it, to tell the story. Andrew Sullivan, Reason Online and others have pointed this out, directly and indirectly, in their discussions of the larger implications of his comments.

As they write, his broader comments are actually more inflammatory. Remember that nine states and Puerto Rico have laws specifically outlawing sodomy regardless of the sex of the individuals participating; only four states have laws that apply only to same-sex couples; a husband and wife in Idaho who perform oral sex on one another could go to jail for life.

A statement Santorum issued yesterday seems to affirm that he was talking about something a lot larger than just homosexuality: The last paragraph reads, “Again, my discussion with the Associated Press was about the Supreme Court privacy case, the constitutional right to privacy in general, and in context of the impact on the family. I am a firm believer that all are equal under the Constitution. My comments should not be misconstrued in any way as a statement on individual lifestyles.”

Now we’re clear: That particular comment wasn’t about gay people, it was about the privacy of anyone who does dirty things in bed.

So how did something he didn’t quite say get attributed to him endlessly? It appears to be the result of a common practice in journalism: cleaning up quotations.

People don’t speak in neat, clean sentences; transcribe a couple minutes of any conversation and that becomes clear. Thus journalists often “clean up” spoken statements before quoting them in a story so they make logical sense. Some do not; this statement of integrity from The New York Times even says “‘Approximate’ quotations can undermine readers’ trust in The Times.” Still, adding words in brackets or parenthesis to clarify is common, as is truncating statements or adding ellipses to show that part of the quotation has been removed.

The Society Of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics says that journalists should “Make certain that headlines, news teases and promotional material, photos, video, audio, graphics, sound bites and quotations do not misrepresent. They should not oversimplify or highlight incidents out of context.”

And that’s exactly what this quotation did, and more importantly, it’s what the press did by focusing on this (altered) quote and rephrasing it in headlines and lead paragraphs. In this endless news cycle, where reporters report on reporters reporting on reporters, a small thing such as a bracketed word has the potential to shape debate.

In this situation, it clearly has. How many other situations are similar?

According to a report by Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick, when the case Santorum was commenting on came before the Supreme Court, Justice Antonin Scalia actually asked questions suggesting a similar connection to bigamy and adultery. Clearly some people believe in a connection between “consensual [gay] sex” and illegal behaviors, and that subject is worthy of coverage. And of course Santorum’s comments include a lot of other highly inflammatory content that is newsworthy.

For those ideas expressed in those comments or others, Rick Santorum very well may deserve to be removed from his position of leadership in the Senate. But let’s at least call for his removal based upon something he actually said. | 23 April 2003

Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and editor of exposed.

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