This page is quick to criticize when the courts hand down verdicts that limit the public's right to know by restricting the press. So it's only fair to react just as vigorously when the courts err in the opposite direction by opening the door to irresponsible journalism.
That's what happened recently when the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco decided to let journalist get away with making up "quotations" and putting them in the mouths of public figures.Though this court may sanction the practice, others shouldn't. Neither should the journalism profession. Meanwhile, the unhappy precedent set by the California court is bad for the media, ruinous to press credibility and is a blow to free speech.
Further, it undermines the press in those other too-frequent situations where some public figures claim to be misquoted even though they weren't. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals verdict simply adds weight to such excuses and builds mistrust of the media.
In its astonishing verdict, the appeals court said that a reporter could make up quotations and attribute them to a public figure if the quotations were "rational interpretations of ambiguous remarks" or "maintained the substantive content of unambiguous remarks."
The Mountain States Legal Foundation has a better argument. In a brief filed with the U.S. Supreme Court, the foundation asks:
"Why should a reporter be free to make up a quotation when the language used by a public figure is ambiguous? Isn't it the responsibility of the reporter to ask simply, `What did you mean by that?', and thereby seek to obtain a real quote?"
Good reporters don't make up quotes and good editors won't let them if they can help it. Accuracy is the goal, not sensation. This is one freedom of the press case that needs to go back to court for a new and more responsible ruling.