'Journalists can play with quotes'

Insanity. That's all I could think of when I read this line in a Fortune magazine article about why we've seen no lawsuits from Facebook or its founder Mark Zuckerberg despite all the likelihood that "The Social Network," compelling as I expect it to be, is based more on fiction than fact:

An obvious part of the answer lies in the creative license that American law gives to writers. A novelist can pen a roman a clef, journalists can play with quotes, Oliver Stone can do a wicked screed like W. -- all are protected under the First Amendment as long as the material isn't outright libelous. The fact the works play with the truth is legally beside the point unless the fiction is so over the line that it harms somebody and does so recklessly.

I'm not sure about that last line. I've yet to take the upper division Law of Based on a True Story. So I'll leave that one to the media law experts. And, would you believe it, that's exactly what the author of this Fortune piece is.

David A. Kaplan, a former Wall Street lawyer, is a media law professor at New York University Law School. AKA NYU. AKA the sixth-highest-ranked law school in the nation.

I would imagine Kaplan knows his media law. But he might want to bone up on basic journalism ethics.

Playing with quotes is not -- as in NEVER -- an acceptable practice. Legally, it might be permissible, but practically and professionally it is not. Not if you want to have a future as a journalist. Call the subject back or settle for a softer quote or just paraphrase. But don't ever play with their quote.

Sure, its standard for reporters to clean up "ums" and "ya knows" and add identifiers within brackets where it's unclear whom is being referred to. That's fine, and that's basically it.

Quotes are just that: Quotes.

The verbatim recitation of someone's perspective. They may be condensed, edited or bifurcated, but the exact words that appear on page need to be as true to what the subject said as the integrity of what's left of it.

It's a short leap from playing with someone's words so that they sound the way a reporter wants and just straight making the quotes up. Paging Mr. Glass and Mr. Blair. And what in the world ever happened to Janet Cooke?

I imagine Kaplan feels like I am either being insincerely hyperbolic or that I misunderstood what he meant by "journalists can play with quotes." I doubt the former and I hope for the latter.

To boot, it's not as if hard-working reporters need to transform quotes into something they want to use. (Here's an example of what happens when lazy reporters make up quotes.) Devious as it may seem, a good reporter is always able to find the right voice for a money quote that poignantly conveys the exact message the reporter is trying to get across.

On a different note -- and this from someone who likely will see "The Social Network" on opening night -- I find equally troubling the whole underlying story for the film. It's based on a book by Ben Mezrich, whose "Bringing Down the House" I devoured in one sitting. I admired his style, until I learned it was prone to composite characters and fictionalizations. He's sort of like the Bizarro Dan Brown. Makes me feel like James Frey got a raw deal.

I think that I'll step down from my soapbox now.

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