Journalistic Ethics and Mangled Quotes

Striking the balance between cruel and misleading.

Via memeorandum, I see that many are glomming on to a rather mean-spirited post from PJ Media‘s Catherine Salgado (“‘We Sale Your Bank’: WaPo Reporter Rewrites Disastrous Fetterman Word Salad as a ‘Quote“):

To protect the ever-brilliant Sen. John Frankenstein — er, Fetterman (D-Pa.) — a Washington Post reporter rewrote a muddled Fetterman ramble and posted it as a quote. Apparently, journalism now means covering up government idiocy by pretending an official is actually coherent.

Fetterman was attempting to question the former CEO of the collapsed Silicon Valley Bank (SVB), Greg Becker. The Washington Post’s White House economics reporter Jeff Stein tweeted, “Sen. @JohnFetterman (D-Pa.) to SVB executive Greg Becker: ‘Shouldn’t you have a working requirement after we bail out your bank? Republicans seem to be more preoccupied with SNAP requirements for hungry people than protecting taxpayers that have to bail out these banks.’” The issue? That’s not really what Fetterman said. Not by a long shot.

As PJ Media’s Paula Bolyard tweeted, the actual quote from Fetterman is quite different, to put it mildly, from what Stein claimed: “Shouldn’t you have a working requirement after we sale [sic] your bank—er, with billions of your bank? Because they see me [sic] pre-preoccupied when then [sic] SNAP, uh, in the requirements for works [sic] for hungry people, but not about protecting the—the tax papers [sic] you know, that will bail no matter [sic] whatever does [sic] about a bank to crash it.”

No, I don’t know what he was trying to say, either. But apparently, Stein thought he understood so well that he could write up what he thought Fetterman meant to say and treat it as a quote.

Fetterman rambled like Joe Biden in the White House during the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs hearing, “Examining the Failures of Silicon Valley Bank and Signature Bank.” The man needs to be in a hospital, not in Congress. It’s a total — and painful — joke that his family and staff keep trying to force him through the motions of being a functioning senator.

”Now they [banks] have — it’s in, a guaranteed, a guaranteed way to be saved,” Fetterman fretted about the government bailout of SVB. “By no — no matter, by — by — by how, you know. So it’s, it’s, you know, isn’t it appropriate that the, these kinds of — this kind of control be more stricter?” Unsurprisingly, his question was met with silence. Then he brought out the above clincher, where he compared Republicans’ proposed employment requirement for accessing SNAP benefits to, presumably, his desire for banks like SVB to “work.” All to save that “tax papers” money.

So, look. We all know that Fetterman had a stroke almost exactly a year ago and has struggled ever since with his speech. Calling him “Frankenstein” and implying that he’s cognitively impaired is bush league stuff, at best.

At the same time, there’s a reasonable question as to how far journalists should go in cleaning up quotes. Here’s short video of Fetterman’s questioning:

It’s painful to watch. Still, it’s not hard to suss out what points he’s attempting to make.

The Hill‘s Stephen Neukam followed Stein’s lead and simply cleaned up the quote. The New York Post‘s Victor Nava did the same, although he did embed a video of the questioning via a friendly tweet.

Business Insider‘s Katherine Tangalakis-Lippert went further, essentially rewriting the Senator’s question to make it more coherent.

The only example I found other than Salgado of a relatively mainstream outlet quoting Fetterman derisively was Fox News’ Houston Keene, who took every opportunity to insert a (sic) to draw attention to the mangled syntax.

Newsweek‘s Katherine Fung reports on the reaction to the incident, noting that Fetterman “caught the attention of admirers and detractors alike, with some observers applauding the Democrat for his line of questioning and others speculating if he’s fit to serve Congress.” While she notes that critics are lambasting his incoherent words and defenders are, well, defending him she, too, cleans up the quotes.

My general practice when quoting someone’s verbal comments is to omit filler words like “um,” “er,” “uh,” and the like. I’ll even correct obvious typos if I’m quoting someone’s tweets or blog posts. To do otherwise is to place the emphasis on the mistake rather than the idea.*

This, though, goes further than that. The reporters are doing more than taking out verbal tics; in many cases, they’re simply reformulating the questions to make them more powerful. I’m uncomfortable with that.

TNR’s Prem Thakker takes my preferred approach, making clear where he’s editing but in a way that’s not demeaning to Fetterman’s condition.

“Republicans want to give a work requirement for SNAP, you know, for a hungry family to have these kinds of penalties, or some kinds of working requirements. Shouldn’t you have a working requirement after we bail out your bank?” Fetterman challenged Silicon Valley Bank President Greg Becker. “Because [Republicans] seem to be more preoccupied [with] SNAP requirements for hungry people, but not about protecting the taxpayers that will bail [out the banks].”

But, elsewhere in the report, he engages in light cleanup as well:

“Is it an inside joke that no matter how incompetent or how greedy, the government will always bail you out when your bank crashes?” Fetterman inquired. “Everyone has to realize that no matter how bad I behave, no matter how big my raise is, my bonuses and everything, we will come in and bail it,” he continued, asking Becker if he believes it’s all a “running joke in the circles of banking that ‘no matter how bad we have, we are going to be saved.’”

“I don’t believe that’s the case,” Becker responded.

“Really?” Fetterman said, incredulously. “Do you believe that that is not outrageous: that no matter how deplorable your performance is, you are made whole—all by taxpayers.… What if we didn’t come out and bail out your bank, what would’ve happened?”

Becker answered by saying that their shareholders did lose their value, that he believes it was important to protect their clients, and that businesses would have been significantly impacted if they were not bailed out.

“Is it a staggering responsibility that the head of a bank could literally crash our economy?” Fetterman countered. “It’s astonishing.… They also realize that now they have a guaranteed way to be saved,” he continued. “Isn’t it appropriate that this kind of control should be more stricter?”

I’m mildly surprised he left in “more stricter.”

I’m also amenable to the Newsweek approach here. That is, this is really two stories. First, Fetterman asked some pointed questions to highlight the discrepancy between how we treat ultrarich financiers who continually put our economy at risk and the poor.** Second, some people are trying to score political points off Fetterman’s mangled syntax. Mixing those into a single report obscures the first, which is arguably more newsworthy.

Regardless, I prefer Thakker’s approach to the quotes: use direct quotations for Fetterman’s actual words and some combination of brackets, ellipses, or partial quotes and paraphrasing to distinguish between the reporter’s voice and the Senator’s.


*The exception to this policy—and Salgado could reasonably point to hypocrisy here—is when drawing attention to a person’s ignorance is important. So, if I’m quoting a white supremacist group’s spokesman about the virtues of the master race, highlighting that he’s an uneducated fool through his own words is useful. My counter is that, if this were the way Fetterman had always talked, that’s fair game. Knowing the context—a stroke—just makes it mean.

**That argument is perhaps more cute than profound and is certainly rebuttable. Still, even in the painful-to-watch video, one has to work really hard to pretend not to understand the gist.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. gVOR08 says:

    FOX/GOP like to portray Biden’s verbal stumbles as evidence of mental decline. Which is possible. But one could just as easily report it as dealing admirably with his stutter.

  2. CSK says:

    Part of the problem is that it becomes so painful to listen to Fetterman is that it becomes impossible to do so after only a minute or so, so whatever he’s saying is lost anyway.

  3. Kurtz says:


    Some people called Obama Celebrity-in-Chief. I don’t know how long it lasted or how widespread it was. But it was used enough for me to remember it well. Considering Reagan’s legacy within the GOP, it was a little odd. So 2016 came and they did it again.

    It is charitable to call many of Trump’s utterances a salad. They often hardly resemble a composed dish; more like the detritus from a bowl tossed by a temperamental toddler.

    Trump doesn’t need to have survived a stroke to be unclear.

    James’s OP mentions the Post person’s use of “sic.” Applying that approach to Trump’s liberal use of ALL CAPS and multiple exclamation points would likely be used as an example of left media bias, because it is clear what Trump means.

  4. CSK says:


    I think I garbled this.

  5. Mr. Prosser says:

    “The exception to this policy—and Salgado could reasonably point to hypocrisy here—is when drawing attention to a person’s ignorance is important.” True. Any video or direct quote from Louie Gohmert or Tommy Tuberville should never be “clarified.”

  6. Jay L Gischer says:

    The thing this makes me think of is the press release process for, just to pick something, CEO’s. This typically involves quotes from the CEO which have been written by his press team. The CEO looks at it and signs off on it, I’m sure, but they probably never actually say it.

    We no longer write dialog in novels with the accent/dialect put in, as Mark Twain did, either. This topic seems pretty complicated to me.

  7. James Joyner says:

    @Jay L Gischer: One of my pet peeves is the number of documents ostensibly written by important people (cabinet secretaries, general and flag officers, etc.) that are then attributed to them, even though we know damn well staffers did it. But really a different animal than this.

  8. Neil Hudelson says:

    @Jay L Gischer:
    I’m curious how long this has been a phenomenon. Are we really reading Sun Tzu’s “Art of War” or are we reading Sun Tzu’s Chief of Staff and his Authoring Committee’s final consensus “Art of War?”

  9. Joe says:

    @James Joyner: Most of the decisions in administrative law litigation that I do are written by one side or the other or often by agreement of the parties. The administrative law judge may or may not make edits (more likely if the orders are contested), but the Commissioners vote up/down on what they get from the ALJs and almost never touch the text that goes out over their names.

  10. Kurtz says:

    @Neil Hudelson:

    It probably aligns closely with the timeline of the development of writing systems and associated recording tools.

    I would have to brush up a bit to give anything detailed. But here is a helpful Wiki link to start:


  11. Gustopher says:

    Watching people with disabilities is uncomfortable until you get used to it. It’s not surprising that Republicans are latching onto this, because their current MO is to appeal to people’s worst instincts and fears.

    It’s clear what Fetterman is trying to say (he 95% says it!), there’s no evidence that he lost critical thinking skills (or that critical thinking skills are required for his job!).

    Diane Feinstein, however, clearly has no idea what is going on and her staff and family are committing Elder Abuse. When asked if she was glad to be back recently, she insisted that she hadn’t been anywhere.

    She should retire/be-retired (can she knowingly consent to retire?) and her family, friends and former staff should just always tell her it’s Saturday, that congress isn’t in session today, and that she needs to prepare for questioning a judicial nominee next week*. Let her live her best life, and let the rest of us move on.

    *: it sounds cruel, but if she’s that far gone, explaining to her that she had to retire because of her memory problems would just be a daily fight. Everyone would be miserable. Humor her where harmless, let her be happy.

    That’s kind of what’s happening now, and I understand the staff and family’s desire to do this, except there’s real harm to her constituents, to her colleagues and to the nation.

  12. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    Salgado’s bias is easy to see–the real-time difference between the dog whistling of the past and the Trump era bullhorn feedback squeal–but I’m not part of her audience, so I discount what she says automatically (mostly by ignoring the message altogether). The bias of the other redactors of Fetterman’s words seems more problematical to me. Just as in the situation of Sen. Feinstein, his constituents need to know what he’s able to do and what he isn’t. If redactors are converting questions from Fetterman from statements that the people hearing them are not able to address honestly to questions that could make those same hearers appear to be evasive, the redactors are doing a disservice to his constiutents, no matter what their motives may be. Truth be told, he may never regain the ability to express himself as completely as he had in the past–I’m not a neurologist and can’t assess the damage either up close or from afar, but lots of people seem to not fully recover from strokes even in the present day. The people who get called on to vote for him need to be able to assess his condition as accurately as they can. People on both sides of the current schism look to be interfering with voters getting information they need to have.

    And Fetterman may need to read from scripts that he follows to the letter rather than speaking extemporaneously (as he seems to be doing in this case). (And if in fact, he was reading from a script, that may be important for the voters to know.) Either way, the voters need accurate accounting rather than redaction.

  13. Tony W says:

    They spent six years re-writing Trump’s statements and now they complain? The difference is that Fetterman is thinking clearly, but has trouble getting the words out. Ditto Biden.

    Trump’s brain was seemingly contaminated by the mashed potatoes thrown on his head as a kid (one of Mary Trump’s best stories) and Donnie has not had a clear thought since.

  14. MarkedMan says:

    @Gustopher: When we were looking for a home for my father, who was in the throes of dementia, one senior staff member showing my sister and I around intervened in a squabble between two patients, sending the one off and placating the other with assurances of an intervention a bit later. After we walked on, she looked at us and said (I’m paraphrasing and expanding), “We do what it takes to sooth the problems just for now. There is no resolution or long term solution because there is no longer any “later” in their lives. Regardless of what anyone said, we could start from scratch and go through the exact same scenario ten minutes from now.”

  15. drj says:

    @Neil Hudelson:

    For centuries, Sun Tzu’s writings were copied in manuscript form. Every time a manuscript gets copied, mistakes are added. These mistakes – some of which can be intentional (for instance, as part of an ideological struggle) – get copied, too.

    Eventually, there are certain manuscripts that get copied more often than others and these, as well as their “offspring,” are then seen as having more authority than other variants, and become the “true” text.

    However, these dominant variants are not necessarily closest to the oldest (and thus most reliable) variants.

    Looking at the Bible, for instance, later compilers and copyists sometimes picked textual variants that we know are wrong, i.e., different from the most reliable textual traditions.

    There is this great book, Misquoting Jesus, that explains how this works and which is surprisingly readable for a serious academic text.

    By the way, it’s not only the Christians who messed it up The first complete extant copy if the Quran only dates to the ninth century and earlier fragments are not always consistent with each other.

    Not so good if you believe that the Quran is the literal word of God…

  16. gVOR08 says:


    Every time a manuscript gets copied, mistakes are added.

    Scott Lemieux at LGM links to an NYT story that seems like it should get more attention. A federal appeals court routinely rejected an injured prison inmate’s claim against prison officials on the grounds they have qualified immunity. But one of the judges called attention to a recent law review article claiming qualified immunity is based on the omission of a phrase when an 1871 law was copied in 1874 into the first compilation of federal law.

  17. Kurtz says:


    Ha! I almost mentioned Ehrman in my response to Hudelson. I’ve long been a fan. I’m working my way through his book on Revelation now.

  18. Gustopher says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: Fetterman participated in a debate post-stroke against whatever right wing nutjob was also running. The voters of PA are aware of what he can do when we’ll prepared.

    He also answers questions from journalists pretty regularly. So, the voters can know what he can do when not prepared.

    It’s an impediment, a very real one that impacts his job somewhat. Voters decided this was better than Republican crazy.

    He’ll face the voters in 4 and a half years, he should reassess sometime before that, but cognitively, he’s more-or-less fine.

  19. wr says:

    Fetterman may regain the ability to speak more clearly with time, whereas the PJ Media writers will always be scumbags.

  20. mattbernius says:

    I approve of that paraphrasing of Churchill.