When you've given a quote one of your top awards, it's hard to backpedal even when people figure out the quote doesn't say what you've claimed it said.
That's the situation the Media Research Center finds itself in. At its 2004 Dishonors Awards, the MRC gave its quote of the year -- or the "Ozzy Osbourne Award (for the Wackiest Comment)" -- to Charles Pierce, who wrote a January 2003 Boston Globe Magazine profile of Sen. Ted Kennedy that included the following lines about Mary Jo Kopechne, the woman who was a passenger in a car driven by Kennedy when it plunged off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island, killing her: "If she had lived, Mary Jo Kopechne would be 62 years old. Through his tireless work as a legislator, Edward Kennedy would have brought comfort to her in her old age."
The MRC has been peddling this attack on Pierce for years. In an August 2008 CyberAlert, for instance, Brent Baker portrayed the quote as an example of Pierce's "ludicrous level of veneration" of Kennedy.
The problem? It's taken out of context. Pierce told his side of the story in an October 2004 American Prospect article:
In January of 2003, I wrote a piece for The Boston Globe Magazine ruminating on the 40 years that Edward Kennedy has been in the United States Senate. At one point early on, I decided to deal with The Great Unmentionable at the heart of that career, so I wrote:
And what of the dead woman? On July 18, 1969, on the weekend that man first walked on the moon, a 28-year-old named Mary Jo Kopechne drowned in his automobile. Plutocrats' justice and an implausible (but effective) coverup ensued. And, ever since, she's always been there: during Watergate, when Barry Goldwater told Kennedy that even Richard Nixon didn't need lectures from him; in 1980, when his presidential campaign was shot down virtually at its launch; during the hearings into the confirmation of Clarence Thomas, when Kennedy's transgressions gagged him and made him the butt of all the jokes. She's always there. Even if she doesn't fit in the narrative line, she is so much of the dark energy behind it. She denies to him forever the moral credibility that lay behind not merely all those rhetorical thunderclaps that came so easily in the New Frontier but also Robert Kennedy's anguished appeals to the country's better angels.
And then, a few paragraphs later, I concluded the passage with the following:
If she had lived, Mary Jo Kopechne would be 62 years old. Through his tireless work as a legislator, Edward Kennedy would have brought comfort to her in her old age.
Now, I thought that was a tough, but fair, shot. Some people disagreed. The following Saturday, some veteran liberals chided me over the hors d'oeuvres at a dinner party. Some other people agreed. James Taranto of OpinionJournal cited it as evidence that I didn't like the senior senator very much. And my friend Dan Kennedy called it a "paragraph of pure poison." I didn't necessarily agree with them, but they rather obviously got my point -- which is about as good as a writer can hope for these days from the public discourse.
Baker's original 2003 item doesn't mention that Pierce's statement came in the context of a larger statement about how the Chappaquiddick incident effectively keeps him from having the "moral credibility" to be president -- indeed, a search of the MRC archive indicates that it failed for years to place the Pierce quote in its proper context, nor has it apparently responded to Pierce's criticism.
And, to cap things off, the MRC didn't even invite Pierce to their little shindig to pick up that award personally:
I was crushed. This is a big event in Washington every year. Hundreds of sweaty fat guys in tuxedos lust across the ballroom at Laura Ingraham and my gal, Annie Coulter. A hip evening for people who haven't been hip since the night they quoted Ayn Rand to their dates at the Junior Prom. A night of lechery and drunkenness among people who should confine their involvement with the seven deadly sins to Envy, Gluttony, and Rage. I was owed this spectacle.
Hey, I was an award-winner here. I know where to get a tux in D.C. I even had a speech prepared. This is how it started:
"Thank you all. It's nice to be here and to see everyone in such a fine mood. I've never seen Bill Bennett this happy with anything that didn't have a handle on its side.
"Oh, come on, Rush. Twenty more milligrams and that would've been damn funny."
I would have killed, I tell you.
Instead, accepting in my place was ... Mohair Sam Donaldson.
Sam Freaking Donaldson?
Apparently, Sam was gracious. He said one day he hoped to write as well as I do, which apparently got a big laugh. But Sam's no Sacheen Littlefeather, I'll tell you that.
That's right -- as if distorting Pierce's words years after they have been proven to be something other than what the MRC claims them to be wasn't enough, the MRC wouldn't even pony up for dinner.
Yet the MRC perseveres in mis-portraying Pierce's words, even as it's pretending it's not. A July 18 post by Rich Noyes at the MRC's NewsBusters blog again asserted that Pierce's statement was "[p]erhaps the most egregious example of the liberal media planting a pro-Kennedy spin on Chappaquiddick." Noyes then included a long excerpt from Pierce's article with the professed purpose of showing "how a writer could build up to such a quote" and showing how Pierce "paints the Senator as as much a victim of his name as someone who has personally benefited from it."
Like his MRC colleagues, Noyes failed to acknowledge Pierce's side of the story or how others saw it as criticism rather than complement -- even though the critical aspect of the quote is apparent in its context from the excerpt Noyes published.
With Kennedy's death on Aug. 26, the MRC saw fit to trot out the misleading quote yet again. In an Aug. 26 item purporting to detail "Journalistic Admiration for and Championing of" Kennedy, Baker once more repeats the quote. Actually, twice more -- once at the beginning and again in the laundry list of quotes at the end of them, at that point linking to Noyes' NewsBusters post.
Otherwise, Baker stuck to the script -- no context, no explanation, no apology to Pierce. Baker and the MRC has their 5-year-old story, and they're sticking to it.
Indeed, Tim Graham went Baker one better in an Aug. 29 NewsBusters post -- not only did he rehash the quote without its proper context, he felt the need to insult Pierce as well, calling him "the self-impressed Boston clod who is so deeply a tool of the Kennedys that he infamously wrote in the Boston Globe Magazine in 2004 that 'If she had lived, Mary Jo Kopechne would be 62 years old. Through his tireless work as a legislator, Edward Kennedy would have brought comfort to her in her old age.'"
Graham also noted Pierce's statement on Eric Alterman's blog at The Nation that Kennedy "leaves behind a pair of shoes that most of his Senate contemporaries could use for swimming pools." Graham snarkily added: "The swimming metaphors are probably not the best choice." Graham failed to mention that immediately after writing that, Pierce fired a zinger at ... a prominent Democratic senator: "Harry Reid, come on down!"
(Pierce also seemingly predicted Graham's smear of him: "That long, extended, respectful peace beside the dark harbor is going to be a good bulwark of memory to have when the smugness and the vicious ignorance and the nearly bottomless banality that usually encrusts our politics reasserts itself, probably by Sunday. Amen." Pierce was off by an hour or so: Graham posted his NewsBusters item at 10:50 p.m. on Saturday.)
This wouldn't be the first time the MRC has bungled a quote. In 1994, it stitched two unrelated quotes together out of a book written by former New York Times editor Howell Raines and portrayed them as an attack on Ronald Reagan's intelligence and, thus, an example of the Times' liberal bias. In fact, the quote from the book that "Reagan couldn't tie his shoelaces if his life depended on it" referred to fly fishing, not IQ. It wasn't until 2003, after The Daily Howler's Bob Somerby highlighted the error, that the MRC appended a "clarification" to the original articles and added, "We regret the confusion."
Will Pierce have to wait nine years for his "clarification," like Raines did? If so, he's got three more years to go.
(A version of this post appears at ConWebWatch.)