The New York mayoral race this week detoured into one of the occasional rounds of umbrage-taking that are a regular feature of American campaigns, as City Council Speaker Christine Quinn claimed that the wife of Public Advocate Bill de Blasio unfairly criticized Quinn for being childless. This wouldn't necessarily be a big deal, even in terms of our little municipal election, except that the quote was actually a misquote. Making matters worse: The misquoter was New York Times political columnist Maureen Dowd. And Maureen Dowd has something of a history of screw-ups like this.
The original column had Chirlane McCray, de Blasio's wife, saying that she thinks Quinn is "not accessible ... She's not the kind of person I feel I can go up to and talk to about issues like taking care of children at a young age and paid sick leave." So, yes, you can see why Quinn seized on the quote: The implication seems to be that Quinn, who is a lesbian, and childless, doesn't understand issues "like taking care of children."
The problem is that McCray didn't say that, or at least didn't say that in that order. Here's the full quote, in response to a question about why women, so far, aren't flocking to support Quinn in the race:
"Well, I am a woman, and she is not speaking to the issues I care about, and I think a lot of women feel the same way. I don't see her speaking to the concerns of women who have to take care of children at a young age or send them to school and after school, paid sick days, workplace; she is not speaking to any of those issues. What can I say? And she's not accessible, she's not the kind of person that, I feel, that you can go up and talk to and have a conversation with about those things. And I suspect that other women feel the same thing I'm feeling."
This is quite critical, still, but harder to turn into an attack on childlessness. McCray posits that Quinn lacks support among many women because Quinn isn't discussing issues women care about (and McCray seems pretty specifically to be describing issues working women would care about, part of de Blasio's larger knock on Quinn, which is that she is unconcerned with the problems of working and poor New Yorkers). "Taking care of children at a young age" is described in the context of workplace policies, and the problem is that Quinn "is not speaking to any of those issues." The first portion of the quote is pretty explicitly about policy. The "she's not accessible" line is still a personal criticism of Quinn, but one about her personality, not her family status.
In chopping and screwing that response, Dowd turned what is basically a policy criticism, and one clearly based on de Blasio's well-known campaign message, into a much juicier personal slam. The Times corrected the column and Dowd apologized, blaming the error on the noisiness of the diner where the interview was conducted -- a diner whose name she also got wrong in her column, necessitating another correction. But the thing was already out there, a little outrage balloon launched into the frenzied last weeks of a primary campaign. The quote came up at the mayoral debate held Wednesday night, with de Blasio pointing out that the column had been corrected and Quinn saying that the full quote was just as offensive and hurtful as the altered version. (Neither said Dowd's name.)
As others have already done, let's put this Dowd error in context: It is not the first time she's screwed up a quote in her column, and all of her screw-ups conveniently end up turning unremarkable statements into more outrageous ones.
She has put quotes in incorrect context: In 2008, Dowd claimed in her column that Hillary Clinton said Barack Obama is "all hat and no cattle." In fact, Clinton, speaking in Texas, was referring to George W. Bush. [UPDATE: It could be argued, based on context, that Clinton was referring, indirectly, to Obama. It still should not have been definitively stated that she was, however.]
She has printed fabricated quotes: In 2004, Dowd claimed that John Kerry said "who among us doesn't like NASCAR?" You might remember that line. Kerry never said it. He said: "There isn't one of us here who doesn't like NASCAR and who isn't a fan." (Dowd printed that quote -- in quotation marks, and everything! -- after hearing it paraphrased/misquoted by Times reporter Sheryl Gay Stolberg.)
And she has edited quotes to make them sound worse: In 2003, Dowd claimed that George W. Bush said: "That group of terrorists who attacked our country is slowly but surely being decimated ... They're not a problem anymore.''
"Not a problem anymore" actually referred, specifically, to "top al Qaeda operatives [who] are either jailed or dead."
Dowd has plagiarized. She has filed columns with inaccurate datelines. Both of those incidents involved Dowd passing off the writing and reporting of others -- friends and assistants -- as her own, uncredited. There was also the time -- still, as far as I know, never explained -- when an insulting and effeminizing description of Barack Obama was mysteriously scrubbed from the online version of the column.
Any single one of those errors might've gotten a cub reporter fired from the Times. But no non-superstar would've been allowed to get away with all of those mistakes* -- especially the ones that seem very much like the intentional sexing up of material. Maureen Dowd has gotten away with it because she is influential and decorated. She's a Pulitzer winner! But her influence and fame should cause her to be held to a higher standard, not a more lax one. Mistakes -- and outright dishonesty -- coming from someone as prominent as Dowd are worse. If a back-of-the-Metro Section news story misquotes someone, it's bad, but the damage is limited to the people who read the story. If Maureen Dowd manufactures a quote, it can live forever. It travels. It becomes part of "the narrative." People are still making "who among us doesn't like NASCAR" jokes in 2013. That will live forever, because it was so much funnier than the actual boring truth. This Quinn misquote has already become an election issue -- it could play some small part in deciding who the next mayor of New York City is, if the margins are close enough.
If the Times isn't going to fire Maureen Dowd, and they aren't, they need to get her a fact-checker.
*(To be fair to Maureen Dowd, she is not the wrongest Times star who is inexplicably never punished for constant mistake-making. That honor goes to longtime television critic Alessandra Stanley, a writer who, based on the sheer number of frequently hilarious errors in her columns, does not appear to actually watch television. She has been -- on two separate occasions -- assigned her own personal copy editor, to catch her myriad errors before they are published. They did this instead of, say, firing or reassigning her.)