Context is everything

HuckaboomOne of the sad consequences of journalists' low reputation is that sources can claim mishandling even when it might not be true. Yesterday, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee's comments about the Mormon religion in this weekend's Sunday New York Times Magazine 8,100-word profile were revealed. He claimed he was taken out of context. Yesterday, reader Hans noted:

A little less than an hour ago, I watched Huckabee respond to [CNN's] Wolf Blitzer, who questioned him about that statement.

Huckabee claims that he and the reporter had been having an all-day interview and that the reporter was somewhat of an expert in comparative religions and that the reporter had been informing him of a few teachings of Mormonism throughout the day. He then claimed that his question about the Jesus-Satan brothers thing was something that he had heard before and was asking the reporter whether or not it was true and therefore that the editor of the article took his question out of context. So, if Huck is telling the truth, that should clear things up.

Other accounts have Huck saying he was shocked to find his "innocent" question about Mormons in the story and that both he and the reporter were surprised by the reaction to the article. Politico's Michael Calderone says the article's writer and editor both disagree. The reporter in question is one Zev Chafets, whose work in The New York Times we have noted favorably before. Here's Politico's take:

Wednesday afternoon, Huckabee described to CNN's Wolf Blitzer how the interview with Chafets had gone. "Actually, if you'll talk to the reporter, because he was shocked that that was characterized out of an 8,100-word story, as we were, we thought, good heavens. We were having a conversation. It was over several hours, and the conversation was about religion, and he was trying to press me on my thoughts of Mitt Romney's religion.

"And I said I don't want to go there. I don't know that much about it. I barely know enough about being a Baptist. And I really didn't know," the GOP presidential candidate continued.

Huckabee went on to say that Chafets was telling him "things about the Mormon faith, because he frankly is fairly well-schooled on comparative religions. And so as a part of that conversation, I asked the question, because I had heard that, and I asked it not to create something -- I never thought it would make the story."

But Huckabee should not have been too shocked, according to Megan Lieberman, the Times Magazine editor who handled the piece.

Lieberman told Politico that the article was thoroughly fact-checked, and that Alice Stewart, the Huckabee campaign's press secretary, raised no concerns when briefed on that specific quote prior to publication. . . .

Reached Wednesday in Cooperstown, N.Y., where he's writing a book on the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Chafets told Politico: "I asked him the question about Mormonism and whether he thought it was a religion or a cult.

"He said it was a religion, and didn't know much about it. There was a pause. Then he asked his question," Chafets continued.

"He can spin it any way he wants. It was on the wires and picked up by candidates, and I can't be accountable for that," Chafets said, adding, "I hope that the article, as I wrote it, was entirely in context."

Lieberman said she also understood that Huckabee's question "was an unbidden response."

Some reporters do take their sources out of context, put the worst construction on what they've said and violate all sorts of journalistic ethics. But it appears this is not one of those cases.

Having said that, I think it's good if reporters can clue sources in as much as possible about how an article is shaping up and whether the source feels more context is necessary. In this case, the Times did run quotes by Huckabee's campaign. Some papers and reporters do this, others don't. Making sure to put quotes in proper context is at least as important as transcribing the quotes correctly.

Please respect our Commenting Policy