"Get your facts first, and then you can distort 'em as you please."- Mark Twain
During a recent public hearing on Provo Canyon Highway development, a state official was angrily asked about statements he had made during a previous meeting and which had appeared in a newspaper story a couple days before.The official, a member of the Utah Department of Transportation Board of Directors, responded: "You can't believe everything you read in the newspapers."
The audience laughed and applauded. The official, overcome by his witticism, beamed and smiled broadly. The question, of course, was quickly forgotten and went unanswered.
As the reporter who wrote the story and quoted the official, I neither laughed nor applauded. Rather, I became annoyed by the official's unwillingness to take a little heat and stand up to the public criticism his statement, which was quoted correctly, generated.
Officials often like to joke, after reading a newspaper story on a meeting they attended, about whether the reporter who wrote the story really described the same meeting. The differing recollections about what happened often can be accounted for quite simply: The reporter took notes or recorded the proceedings; the officials didn't.
Granted, reporters make mistakes, but readers need to realize journalists are only as good as the source of their information, be that source an interview, a document or a police report. News stories from police reports about an electrocution in Provo last August, for example, were inaccurate until one of the four electrical-shock victims had recuperated enough to call and correct the misinformation.
The selective amnesia often suffered by politicians also can call into question the accuracy of news reports.
We recently learned from Sen. Orrin Hatch and Rep. Howard Nielson that public officials don't always remember, or mean, what they say. Hatch's comments about the Democratic Party being the party of homosexuals and Nielson's suggestion that Dan Quayle be dropped from the GOP ticket didn't exactly endear them to some members of their respective constituencies.
As a result, both lawmakers originally denied having made the statements. When that didn't work, they clarified their remarks by stating what they "meant" to say.
People would be foolish, however, to believe that reporters never misquote people. It all depends on how good - and careful - the reporters are. Integrity also plays a part. Journalists who quote people out of context or pad their stories with editorializing should look for a new job.
Obviously, some of the public maligning of the press is warranted. I cringed recently when reading a statement that ABC White House correspondent Sam Donaldson made to Republican delegates in New Orleans.
Assuming he was quoted correctly, Donaldson said, "You'd better be glad I'm leaving the White House beat in November, because if Bush gets elected, I'd savage him."
Since when did "savaging" the president of the United States become the mandate of the press? You can't help but wonder about the fairness of news stories written by a reporter who would change the press' role from governmental watchdog to political pit bull. Is that really what it takes to be a reporter with a "capital R," as Dan Rather would say?
Investigative, hard-hitting reporting has its place in journalism, as government scandals attest. But reporters must be careful not to confuse arrogance with aggressiveness.
I remember a political cartoon that pictured a man trying to pick up a woman in a bar. Fending off the man's advances, the woman said, "You're so arrogant. Are you an athlete or a journalist?"
Unfair? Perhaps. But obviously some journalists have earned such a reputation. Most reporters, however, don't command multimillion-dollar salaries or overinflated egos to match.
The majority of us simply try to do a good job and produce a good product. And most of us still enjoy the simple thrill of seeing our byline over an accurate and fair story, not "savaging" those whose politics differ from our own.
Adlai Stevenson once said that journalists do not live by words alone, although sometimes they have to eat them. His statement was accurate. But most of the time, so are our news stories.