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TMQ: Where Did that Quote Come From?

Interesting thoughts from Gregg Easterbrook on the world of unnamed sources to quotes:

Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, and Anonymous People Don’t Complain About Quotes: In an era plagued by what Stephen Colbert memorably called “truthiness,” increasingly, public speakers quote people or sources who mysteriously lack names.

In Barack Obama’s speech on the Afghan war, the president quoted at length “one soldier” who supports the White House position. In his 2011 State of the Union Address, Obama quoted a “struggling small business owner” and a “woman who said … she and her neighbors have felt the pain of recession.” Why did these people — assuming they exist — lack names?

The same happens on the other side of the aisle. In June, Rush Limbaugh brought onto his show “Jack,” who said he was a scientist who disproved global warming. No last name, just “Jack” and no hint of what, if any, his evidence might be.

Other examples on the left: In Al Gore’s Rolling Stone article about climate change, the former vice president quoted “a philosopher studying the impact of organized propaganda” and “an authoritative study by 3,000 of the very best scientific experts.” What philosopher? What study? Gore did not say. Lurking out there, the former vice president warned ominously, is a “consortium of the largest global-warming polluters.” What seems really scary is that the “consortium” and the polluters have neither names nor any identifying details.

Other examples on the right: I watched a sermon by the fundamentalist televangelist Joel Osteen. The pastor declared he had an unnamed “friend” who was doing poorly at work until given “insider information” by God; the friend then became rich. Osteen said he had another “friend” who bought some seemingly worthless land, prayed, and then “the state” decided to locate a freeway through the property, causing the “friend” to become wealthy. Beyond the fact that the first “friend” sounds like he was participating in stock fraud and the second “friend” sounds like he was involved in a common form of government corruption, not only is neither “friend” given any identifying detail, Osteen doesn’t even name the state where the second story supposedly occurred.

Sometimes in writing or speaking, there is valid reason to withhold a name. Usually, if the person would lose his or her job if identified. But that doesn’t apply to any of the examples here, or to many others creeping into contemporary discourse.

Unnamed people, unidentified scientists, nameless “studies” and “friends” are very convenient — because the anonymous cannot complain they were misquoted and nameless studies cannot be mischaracterized. Even something like “Jane, 42, a single mother of three on the north side of Chicago” contains enough information that a determined investigator could figure out if Jane actually exists. But if it’s “said one woman in Chicago,” then the entire reference may be fabricated. Politicians, preachers and pundits who want to quote people or studies should use real names and specifics. Otherwise, we should assume they are fibbing.

From Obama’s 2010 State of the Union address: “Talk to the small business in Phoenix that will triple its workforce because of the Recovery Act. Talk to the window manufacturer in Philadelphia who said he used to be skeptical about the Recovery Act, until he had to add two more work shifts just because of the business it created. Talk to the single teacher raising two kids who was told by her principal in the last week of school that because of the Recovery Act, she wouldn’t be laid off.” You can’t talk to them — they don’t have names!

Good points. Those on both sides who quote sources that are not named without any obvious need for protection is an easy way to make a made-up quote sound authentic. Is the “small business in Phoenix” hypothetical or real? There is no way to know. Does Al Gore really have the authoritative study he claims? Who knows! Does Rush’s scientist friend “Jack” really have conclusive research disproving global warming? Who knows! Real quotes should be attributed to their sources and real studies should be cited in enough detail for someone to check the details.

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