Volume XI, Issue 22 ~ May 29 - June 4, 2003

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Burton on the Bay

Mistakes Make Long Memories

Doctors bury mistakes. Lawyers hang them. But journalists put theirs on the front page.
— Anonymous

Nowhere can I get even a hint about who first wrote those lines. If I did, probably no one would believe me, for I’m a newspaperman. Of late, journalists and their profession have been in the news a lot, and little if any of the news is good.

The New York Times not only put its recent mistakes on the front page but also its correction. With four more pages of confessions inside, the world of journalism blushed a crimson brighter than that of the dress worn by the Lady in Red who fingered John Dillinger.

If it can happen at the holier-than-thou, renowned Times, what’s to stop it from happening here — say at our lesser known sheet, Bay Weekly? Or anywhere else?

Seems a star reporter of The Times — whose slogan is “All the news that’s fit to print” — figured there wasn’t enough of the real stuff to print, so he made some up and copied even more from fellow scribes.

When he got caught, the rest of us in this business of writing lost face while his face will be brightened by a predicted six-figure contract for book and movie rights on how he hoodwinked not only the more than one million readers of The Times but also a staff of reporters and editors that number more than the circulation of a few weeklies, though certainly not this one.

To my recollection, I never read even one story carrying the byline Jayson Blair. Yet I was embarrassed, and there was more chagrin within me and my colleagues hereabouts than the average reader can comprehend. We make mistakes, but we avoid the mistake of fabrication — though on occasion it occurs in print in other than The Times.

You see, in the print media, it’s there in black and white where it can be read and re-read for a long, long time. Make an honest mistake, and it will haunt you. Fabricate, and you will be haunted by unemployment. A book publisher might offer a contract — but thereafter, you will be considered a fiction writer, which is as it should be.

We at Bay Weekly wonder, will our readers look upon us as Goodman Ace looked upon the press when he said he keeps reading, not between the lines, but between the lies?

The Other End of the Pen
At some time or other, just about all presidents had their say about newspapers.

“The most truthful part of a newspaper is the advertisements,” said Thomas Jefferson, who also in a letter wrote, “Perhaps an editor should divide his paper into four chapters, heading the first, Truths; second, Probabilities; third, Possibilities; fourth, Lies.”

But, shortly after he left office, old Tom had a better view of the press. In a letter from Monticello to Edward Carrington in 1787, he wrote, “were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

Lyndon Johnson was peeved with the press when he suggested “The fact that a man is a newspaper reporter is evidence of some flaw of character.”

John F. Kennedy, who schmoozed with the press, had moments of frustration, like when he announced, “I always said that when we don’t have to go through you bastards, we can really get our story to the American people.”

Dick Nixon complained, “People in the media say they must look at the president with a microscope. Now I don’t mind a microscope. But boy, when they use a proctoscope, that’s going too far.”

Yet Dick himself was caught in more lies than just Watergate, as when he proclaimed at a press conference in November of 1962, “You won’t have me to kick around any more, because gentlemen (were no ladies in the press corps that day?), this is my last press conference.” Not long thereafter, he was gearing up for a run at Number One.

Teddy Roosevelt, who loved the press when they glorified his charge up San Juan Hill, had a couple of dour comments. “I am content with democracy, even if we have to include the American newspapers as one of its assets — liability would be a better term,” he wrote in a letter to Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge.

Two years later, obviously in another fit of frustration, the Old Rough Rider wrote, “I find it absolutely useless to try and correct untruths or misrepresentations even of the most flagrant kind in the newspapers.”

“I am going to do what I think is best for the country. The misrepresentations which are made by the muckraking correspondents I cannot neutralize, and I don’t intend to,” wrote TR’s successor William Howard Taft.

Staid Dwight D. Eisenhower had his views. “I will die for freedom of the press, even for the freedom of newspapers that call me everything that is a good deal less than … a gentleman.”

Even royalty gets into the act: “Newspaper strikes are a relief,” suggested Princess Anne of Britain.

“The freedom of the press works in such a way that there is not much freedom from it,” is the way Princess Grace of Monaco put it.

That’s just a sampling, so if sometimes you read something in a newspaper that makes you flush, be reminded that you’re not the first.

Sins of the Past
Other than for the year long ago that I took a sabbatical to sample another kind of work, I’ve lived and worked with newspaper people since 1947, and I’ve found them a dedicated and conscientious lot — and truthful in at least what they put in black and white. Only two exceptions can I recall:

Once in the office in the wee hours of morning, a sports reporter asked me for a Polish first name; a bit later an Italian name; then an Irish name as he pecked on his typewriter next to me. Curious, I asked “Why the ethnic names?”

He didn’t get to call a high school coach earlier in the day. Now it was too late to call him at home, and he was writing an advance story for a big game. He had the last names but needed first names. Somehow, no one complained to the sports editor. That writer wound up as an obscure editor at The Washington Post.

I think it was in 1951 when I was covering my first murder, that of a Massachusetts state trooper for the Springfield Union, a big Western Massachusetts morning broadsheet with circulation in a couple of other states. I was aghast a few mornings when in the now-defunct Boston Post I read about curious investigative reports on tie-ins with the Mafia, drugs, a prostitution ring and such.

The Post’s point man was an old-time police reporter who wanted to sell papers. Being young and not fully aware of the way the game was played to boost circulation, I questioned him about the erroneous reports. His only comment: “Welcome to the big leagues.”

Those days are pretty much gone and never were here at Bay Weekly. If you see something that doesn’t jibe, let us know. Facing deadlines, even on a weekly, can prompt honest mistakes. We avoid the other kind. Enough said …



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Last updated May 29, 2003 @ 1:43am