Misquotation in Media: Catharine MacKinnon never, ever, ever, ever said “All heterosexual intercourse is rape.” Ever. Ever.

This just in…

Quotations to that effect have been incorrectly attributed to both Dworkin or MacKinnon, who never said those words and denied that they believed it when asked. Interpretations of their extensive and nuanced work on intercourse, rape, patriarchy, consent, coercion, men, women, and sexual ethics (which you can find elaborated in detail in, among other places, Dworkin’s book Intercourse and Chapter 9 of MacKinnon’s Toward a Feminist Theory of the State) that claim to find the view written between the lines have repeatedly been made on the basis of selective quotation, wilful misreading, and downright gossip. These facts have been repeatedly pointed out, not least by the authors themselves, but also by a lot of other people, over and over again. And yet the charade goes on.

Today, Ann Bartow at Feminist Law Professors (2006-02-19) took notice of the New York Times Book Review’s uncritical publication of a fabricated quotation from Catharine MacKinnon, repeated by Kate O’Beirne in her anti-feminist tract, Women Who Make the World Worse, and reported as if the quotation were fact by Ana Marie Cox in her review of O’Beirne’s book. The book review, in spite of having itself published a letter by Dworkin and MacKinnon in 1995 on the topic, and in spite of printed treatments of this in the media in the pages of the Chicago Tribune and elsewhere throughout the print media over Cal Thomas’s misquotation of MacKinnon in March 1999, went ahead and published Cox’s review without so much as noting that it contained a plain error of fact that any idiot with access to Google could have discovered in the few seconds it took to type out the obvious search request. Three days later, Elizabeth Anderson (2006-01-18): Bashing Feminists pointed out the error. The Times just got around to publishing an Editor’s Note correcting the error on February 6, which went into print on February 12, nearly a month after the review was published.

Readers may remember that back in January, Salon also ran an interview with O’Beirne by Rebecca Traister back in January, where Traister casually reported the fabricated “quote” not only as fact, but in fact as old news. As it happens, two different people wrote them back within a day of when the story was published — Anonymous 2006-01-16 and Mike Connell 2006-01-17. I posted about it here at GT 2006-01-31: Memo to Rebecca Traister a couple of weeks later. As of 6:39pm on February 19, 2006, they have not even so much as published a correction. I just sent them a third letter about the topic; we’ll see whether this produces any effect or not.

Update (2006-03-01): Rebecca Traister filed a correction on the interview as of 23 February 2006. See GT 2006-03-01: Do the Right Thing: Salon issues correction on misquotation of Catharine MacKinnon for details.

Why does this continue to happen? I’m not worried so much about Rebecca Traister or Ana Marie Cox — the lie is widespread, the challenges to it are evidently not widely known (in spite of being repeatedly made in public forums), and their primary job was to discuss O’Beirne’s book, not to fact-check every claim and citation made in it. Or even about O’Beirne herself — like most professional antifeminists, she makes her living on dishonest hatchet pieces, and while that needs to be exposed, it’s not much of a surprise. What I do want to know, though, is why professional publications that claim a reputation for accuracy and honesty so easily allow blatant, known falsehoods like these into print. Who fact-checked these articles? Who let them through without even minimal research on the quotations in it, and why has it taken a month to get even one correction?

Anderson puts it this way:

Here’s a measure of how much a group is despised: how much malicious absurdity can one ascribe to its members and still be taken as a credible source on what they say and do? With respect to feminists, the answer is quite a lot. Christina Hoff Sommers, former philosopher and professional feminist basher, has been widely and credulously cited for her critique of the American Association of University Women’s report, How Schools Shortchange Girls, although my fact-checking finds her critique riddled with errors, inconsistencies, and misleading claims. Many academic critics of feminist philosophers are just as bad, often to the point of ascribing claims to feminists that are exactly the opposite of what they say. Feminists, it seems, are not entitled to a minimally charitable or even literate reading of what they say.

Andrea Dworkin wrote something similar in the editorial notes of Letters from a War Zone, on her essay Biological Superiority: The World’s Most Dangerous and Deadly Idea (p. 110):

… One problem is that this piece, like others in this book, has no cultural presence: no one hs to know about it or take it into account to appear less than ignorant; no one will be held accountable for ignoring it. Usually critics and political adversaries have to reckon with the published work of male authors whom they wish to malign. No such rules protect girls. One pro-pornography “feminist” published an article in which she claimed I was anti-abortion, this in the face of decades of work for abortion rights and membership in many pro-choice groups. No one even checked her allegation; the periodical would not publish a retraction. One’s published work counts as nothing, and so do years of one’s political life.

Whether or not you agree with Catharine MacKinnon’s or Andrea Dworkin’s views, and whether or not you are even interested in discussing them or finding out precisely what they are, you do have a responsibility to make sure that articles published under your authority and with the imprimatur of your reputation don’t repeat exposed fabrications about them or about what they said. The pages of the Grey Lady or even of Salon shouldn’t read like the Horror File page of a Men’s Rights bully-boy. Professional journalists are paid to do a lot better than that, and it’s long past time that we hold them accountable for it.

You can write a public letter to the editor of Salon in response to Traister’s interview, or write privately, to let them know that they are printing documented falsehoods and that you expect better of them.

Update (2006-03-01): There’s no more need to write letters for a correction. Rebecca Traister filed a correction on the interview as of 23 February 2006. See GT 2006-03-01: Do the Right Thing: Salon issues correction on misquotation of Catharine MacKinnon for details. If you’ve got an itch to write Salon, you can always write them a letter thanking them for doing the right thing and urging them to fact-check specific quotations from named authors more carefully in the future.

Further reading:

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2 replies to Misquotation in Media: Catharine MacKinnon never, ever, ever, ever said “All heterosexual intercourse is rape.” Ever. Ever. Use a feed to Follow replies to this article

  1. Victoria Marinelli

    THANK YOU for putting all these details in one nice, relatively brief, handy post so I can expeditiously refer to it whenever this irritating subject arises, which is often, and which has in the past led to me wearing myself out in repetitive, useless arguments. Useless: because I can never articulate what you have said here in other than a wandering, discursive way, like a thought “train” that has so many stops between its points of origin and destination that persons not so invested in the journey - in the issue - bail out whilst en route, shouting things like “Uh huh, Andrea Dworkin did so say that…” etc., in the fine tradition of knee-jerk repetition of falsehood until it begins to have at least an air of truth. (Witness the Bush Administration.)

    Literary nonfiction (my vehicle of choice) isn’t a particularly apt means of conveying this kind of message; your more precise (and quite well exercised) prose here is much more suitable. Again: thank you.

· March 2006 ·

  1. Discussed at radgeek.com

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    Do the Right Thing: Salon issues correction on misquotation of Catharine MacKinnon

    You may recall that I complained a few weeks ago about Rebecca Traister’s interview with Kate O’Beirne in Salon which repeated a fabricated quote from…

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