Journalists, especially sub-editors, can draw a lesson on arrogance in editing — and how not to handle a quotation — from a controversy over a 10m-tall statue of Martin Luther King, the civil rights leader whose birthday is celebrated in the US today.
A full quotation, an extract from a speech by King in 1968, had been approved. But the architect and sculptor decided to shorten it and placed a paraphrased version on the right side of the 10m-tall statue.
When criticised, they stood by their story. No change, they said. Anyway it won’t fit. No space. Anyway it sounds better this way. It’s brief. It’s to the point. They just fell short of saying that Martin Luther King should have said it they way they wrote it.
A painfully familiar example of editorial arrogance at work, if it was heard in a newsroom. They decided to sub the copy after it had been officially cleared. They used a paraphrase in place of an actual quotation, to be “brief and succint”. Then they said their version is better.
After months of controversy, the US goverment has ordered a change. The park service has 30 days to come up with a better alternative, after consulting everyone concerned.
The statue itself is quite disturbing. King is shown emerging out of stone, a somewhat Sphinx-like and rigid monumental figure. It’s also reminiscent of heroic statues or portraits of Mao Tse-tung, with his posture of crossed arms, somewhere in Tien An Men or the Great Hall. Not quite the image of a god-fearing preacher who stood for racial equality and an end to discrimination.
The full quotation comes from the end of a long and powerful speech King made on 4 February 1968:
The “Drum Major Instinct” sermon
But the right face of the statue says this instead:
I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.
Comedy Central satirist Stephen Colbert noted that the truncated quotation was “to the point. Not Dr. King’s point, but still. Brevity is the soul of saving money on chiselling fees.”
Poet and author Maya Angelou said in August, when the statue was to be unveiled on the anniversary of King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, that: “The quote makes Dr. Martin Luther King look like an arrogant twit. He was anything but that. He was far too profound a man…”
The Post’s Rachel Manteuffel noted that King’s original sermon was actually “about the desire in the human spirit to be great without doing any great, difficult things. To be at the front of the pack, drawing all the attention. This is folly, King says.” King admits in the sermon that he is also prone to this weakness like everyone else, but hopes that he will be remembered for fighting for noble causes and helping others, not for seeking attention.
The Post said the original plans had included the full quotation. “After the plans were approved, the lead architect and the sculptor thought the stone would look better with fewer words. They did the editing themselves, without considering the violence it would do to the quote’s meaning. It was as simple as that.”
What the “editor” said:
extracts from the Washington Post, Sept 3, 2011
It’s better like this
The paraphrase is proper and fitting: “We felt it was quite appropriate for (King) to define himself . . . ‘I was a drum major for peace, justice, and righteousness.’
He should have said it our way
The word ‘if’ suggests that . . . he’s not sure of who he was. . . . We have the historical perspective. We can say emphatically he was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.”
We want it short
The sculptor, Lei Yixin, and the carver, Nick Benson, felt that the inscription should be “very brief and succinct.” He said it was not designed to be a direct quote. “You can’t get any more succinct than that.”
It won’t fit. No space
The full quote would not fit in the allotted space. Asked if the inscription could be altered in any way, the architect said, “No.”
“The space is not there”
» Architect says controversial inscription will stay