The Strange Case of the Quote Theft That Wasn't

| Wed Aug. 15, 2012 7:14 PM EDT

Very few of you are probably interested in whether or not Fareed Zakaria properly credited Clyde Prestowitz for a quote he used in his 2008 book, The Post-American World. But since I wrote about this yesterday, I owe everyone an update.

Nickel summary: Zakaria used a quote from Andy Grove that first appeared in a book Prestowitz wrote. Prestowitz says Zakaria never credited him, and believes Zakaria owes him an apology. "It kind of has been bugging me for a while," he told the Washington Post.

So David Frum trekked out to the library to look at the paperback edition of Zakaria's book, and used Amazon's "Look Inside" feature to check out the original hardcover version. It turns out that both of them fully credited Prestowitz in footnote 11 on page 262. Today the Post retracted its article:

Endnotes crediting Prestowitz were contained in hardcover and paperback editions of Zakaria’s book. The Post should have examined copies of the books and should not have published the article. We regret the error and apologize to Fareed Zakaria.

This is just damn strange. The Post reporter obviously didn't do his homework, so shame on him. But what's the deal with Prestowitz? Did he not notice the footnote because it came at the end of a long passage? Did a friend tell him he hadn't been credited and he just accepted it without checking? Is there a first edition hardcover that doesn't have the footnote? What's going on here?

On a related note, I got an email from a reporter today taking me to task for my contention that in popular writing there's no need to credit every single quote. At his newspaper, he says, the standard is to attribute everything:

You can't just go around stealing quotes. It takes a lot of work, as you know, to get good quote. Really this is journalism 101, to credit info that you didn't get yourself. It isn't just inside baseball. It's so the readers can judge where the info comes from. All of this applies, in my view, to books written by journalists.

This actually seems reasonable for a newspaper, which mostly deals with breaking news and fairly recent quotes. Less so for non-academic books, which I just don't think adhere to this standard. In a follow-up email, I asked why his newspaper had this rule:

Our main reason is that we feel it helps readers if they know where each bit of information comes from. Another reason, probably equally important, is that, frankly, it covers your butt if it turns out there's some problem with the quote. It often prevents us from printing bogus stuff....You're right it's probably not always necessary. But we have a lot of rules like this because they have helped stop us from printing false stuff repeatedly. It's kind of like those error-prevention routines they follow in hospitals.

I like this answer. The rule is there to help readers and ensure accuracy, and at a newspaper, under deadline pressure, it's probably best to insist on attribution in the text as a way of ensuring that fact checking has been done properly. However, in long-form writing, I'd argue that fact checking can be done separately, and you don't necessarily need the crutch of having everything in the text itself.

In fact, the only thing I really object to here is the idea of someone "stealing" a quote. Maybe this is just me, but when I see a quote I don't assume it came from an interview conducted by the author. So I don't think there's any kind of misrepresentation when a quote isn't credited. Nor do I feel that an interviewer "deserves" credit every single time a quote from an interview is ever used by someone else. If it's something recent, especially something exclusive, then sure: they probably do deserve credit. But after a month? Or a year? I just don't see it.

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