Well, I figured this would happen pretty soon. Al Feuer's 8/12/2005 NYT story on the Air America financing scandal, running under the headline "Bronx Boys Club's Finances Investigated", had a correction appended on 8/13/2005:
Correction: Aug. 13, 2005, Saturday:
An article yesterday about state and city investigations of a loan made by a Bronx social service agency to the liberal radio network Air America quoted incorrectly from comments made on the air by Al Franken, the host of an Air America program. Referring to Evan M. Cohen, a former official of the network whom Mr. Franken accused of having engineered the loan, from the Gloria Wise Boys and Girls Club, Mr. Franken said: "I don't know why they did it, and I don't know where the money went. I don't know if it was used for operations, which I imagine it was. I think he was robbing Peter to pay Paul." (He did not say: "I don't know why he did it. I don't know where the money went. I don't know if it was used for operations. I think he was borrowing from Peter to pay Paul.")
Here's the crucial bit of the original NYT article:
“I don’t know why he did it,” Mr. Franken said, according to a transcript of the broadcast made by the Department of Investigation. “I don’t know where the money went. I don’t know if it was used for operations. I think he was borrowing from Peter to pay Paul.”
Here's what Brian Maloney at The Radio Equalizer transcribed:
I don’t know why they did it, and I don’t know where the money went, I don’t know if it was used for operations, which I imagine it was. I think he was robbing Peter to pay Paul.
I went to the audio linked at Brainster's blog, and did my own transcription, which agrees in all relevant details with Maloney's. Here's an aligned comparison between the NYT version and the truth:
I don't know why he did it / I don't know where the money went I don't know why they did it and I don't know where the money went
I don't know if it was used for operations I don't know if it was used uh for r- operations which I imagine it was
I think he was borrowing from Peter to pay Paul I think he was robbing Peter to pay Paul
By my count, leaving out the disfluencies, that's 38 words in the genuine quote. To get the NYT version, we need to remove 8 words and add 3, for a word error rate of 11/38 = 28.9%. We can give them a bit more credit, since they split the quote into two pieces, and not charge them for the missing "and" at the break. That would make it 10/37 = 27% W.E.R.
But any way you count it, that might actually be better than the norm for quotation accuracy at the NYT! See this 7/30/2005 Language Log post, "'Quotations' with a word error rate of 40-60%" for documentation.
So Michelle Malkin may be right that
The omission of those five little words ["which I imagine it was"] matters because Al Franken's actual statement suggests that the money was in fact stolen from poor kids to pay Air America's bills--a speculation that the Times attributes to "conservative-leaning blogs," but not to the Times' favorite liberal talk show host who said it himself.
And there might be some truth to other speculations that the switch of "they" to "he" was politically motivated (one rotten apple, not a barrelful), and likewise softening "robbing" to "borrowing from".
But then again, maybe it was just the print media's astonishingly cavalier standards for quotation accuracy. Sometimes it doesn't matter, but this time it bit them.
When digital recordings of the original source are available on the web, you can count on someone checking the accuracy of cited quotations, especially when there's a question of bias. Why not take a few seconds to get the quote right?
Some other relevant Language Log posts:
"Quotations" with a word error rate of 40-60% and more (7/30/2005)
Linguists beware (7/9/2005)
Quotes from journalistic sources: unsafe at any speed (7/9/2005)
More comments on quotes (7/1/2005)
Bringing journalism into the 21st century (6/30/2005)
Down with journalists! (6/27/2005)
Ritual questions, ritual answers (6/25/2005)
Ipsissima vox Rasheedi (6/25/2005)
What did Rasheed say? (6/23/2005)