Cook: On quotes, misquotes and leadership

Published 12:00 am Saturday, January 7, 2012

I know what it’s like to feel misquoted. Several years ago, one of our former reporters, Tim Ball, died much too young because of diabetes. A reporter from his paper called for comment, and I answered his questions and talked about Tim’s wit and creativity.
The reporter’s take-away? He quoted me saying Tim had once gone into diabetic shock in the Post newsroom.
Not the tribute I had in mind.
Then there was that negative line a Canadian reporter extracted from our 10-minute conversation about the local economy and jobs. She quoted me saying Rowan might be in the middle of nowhere.
I did say those things. But I said a lot of other things, too. Did the reporter have to focus on that? Did I really come across that negatively?
It was the printed equivalent of hearing your own voice on a taped recording for the first time and cringing at the sound.
Co-workers offered little sympathy when I lamented my line in the Toronto Globe and Mail story.
“You have to admit it’s a great quote,” then-webmaster Jeremy Judd said — journalistically speaking.
As journalists, we’ve all been accused of misquoting people or taking a comment out of context. I knew better than to call foul on the reporter.
Live and learn, I thought to myself. Next time, if there is a next time, have something better to say. And remember that this is how it feels.
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I bring this up because of a county commissioner’s complaint about being misquoted when the Post uses only one of the three sentences he gave in answer to a question.
It might be nice for sources if reporters quoted everyone at length. But as brilliant as our local leaders may be, their expositions do not always make fascinating reading. Space in the paper is limited, and readers’ patience with long stories is even shorter.
So reporters are trained to summarize, explain and get to the essence of what someone says — and keep it in context.
“Remember,” the AP Stylebook says, “that you can misquote someone by giving a startling remark without its modifying passage or qualifiers. The manner of delivery sometimes is part of the context. Reporting a smile or a deprecatory gesture may be as important as conveying the words themselves.”
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There was contention on the Rowan County Board of Commissioners in 1994 over renovating the building where they now meet. The imposing structure at 130 W. Innes St. was built as a federal courthouse around 1910. Commissioners bought the building and land from the federal government for $246,811 in 1979.
But the county did not restore the building to its present state until commissioners agreed to get a $2.5 million loan for the project in 1994.
That is, three of them agreed — Newton Cohen, Jamima DeMarcus and Todd Arey.
In pursuit of conservatism, two commissioners held out.
Charles H. Welch was absent during the final vote, but he made his feelings known. Voters had rejected bonds for the project in 1991, he pointed out. “That is who elected me and that is how I have to vote,” Welch said at one meeting.
Tom Webb said the county should renovate the building on a pay-as-you-go basis rather than borrow money.
Newton Cohen was certainly a conservative, too. But he stood up for this project as a wise investment. He and the rest of the board didn’t want it done piecemeal.
It was a good decision. Fittingly, today’s commissioners meet in the J. Newton Cohen Sr. Room of the Rowan County Administrative Offices — one of the finest buildings in town.
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Is there a lesson there for us today?
For one thing, there’s always a less expensive way, as Webb suggested, but it may not be the best way.
It also proves that split votes don’t have to divide the community. If the project proves to be worthy, everyone pulls together behind it.
Some people were telling Webb and Welch “no, no, no.” Cohen no doubt was hearing the same thing. But the yeas prevailed. And the Rowan County Administrative Offices are accepted as if they’d always been where they are.
Today’s debate over the schools’ central office has a different dynamic. Two boards are involved, and their partnership is rocky — more us vs. them than “we.”
How would a statesmanlike leader handle this? President Dwight Eisenhower, who did his share of leading during World War II and afterward, had a method.
“Leadership,” he said, “is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.”  Too bad we haven’t seen much of that leadership here.
(I feel sure he was quoted correctly.) 
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Elizabeth Cook is editor of the Salisbury Post.