The few reporters who did seem to care about the content of what I was saying were often well-known national network correspondents. These interviews were taped, not live or live on tape. The interview was going to be edited, and only a small segment of it would be aired. That portion would be selected by the correspondent. In these situation, I found the reporter pushing me to say a particular thing. I began to realize that when this happened the reporter already knew the story he or she wanted to present and wanted me to say something that would fit this preconception. I might have said many things in the five or ten minutes, but the snippet that would be aired invariably conformed to what I had discerned to be the reporter’s viewpoint.
This began my withdrawal from at least some of the media business. I decided I would not do radio or TV when I could be edited. Soon thereafter, I tried to avoid all broadcast media. I considered myself a scholar and educator, but I seldom felt that I was educating anyone when doing broadcast appearances. A sound bite, even though I took some pride in producing them, was a trifle, a bon-bon, a chocolate truffle, and not much else. Moreover, an edited interview seldom, if ever, captured what I wanted to impart.
I continued, however, to try to accommodate print reporters. Sometimes a newspaper reporter wanted only the equivalent of a sound bite—something pithy that could be quoted to round out a story. But often the reporter was trying to learn something about the subject at hand. As I have learned from my own writing, a writer generally must have some mastery of the subject matter to write cogently. I often had a dialog with print reporters as they sought to understand the difference between murder and manslaughter or how immunity is granted. When this happened, I felt I was doing a public service by being an educator.
Most of the reporters I talked with were on short deadlines and there was little time for more than one conversation, but when they had a longer lead time, they or someone else at the publication would call back to make sure that they had correctly recorded what I had said. They were checking their facts, something that did not happen with broadcast media and does not seem to happen much with certain politicians today. At least one time, this produced an ethical dilemma for me. A magazine’s fact checker read back a quote and asked if I had said it. I knew that I had, but hearing it read back, I knew that it was going to be misconstrued by some readers. Should I deny making it, even though I had? Should I change the words, even though the quote was accurate? I owned up to it, and it was misconstrued, making me look rather heartless. I am still not sure that I did the right thing.
Even though I got used to some fact-checking, I was surprised by one effort. That was when I got a call from someone who worked with Gail Collins, the columnist at The New York Times. I had not been interviewed for what she was writing, but she was asserting something reasonably arcane for a Sunday column, and Collins was not entirely sure that the statement was correct. Her fact checker’s research came across something I had written that indicated that I might know about her assertion’s accuracy, and thus the call to me. Imagine that! Before going public, she was reaching out and taking steps to make sure she had her facts right. And you can make your own sarcastic comments about the fact-checking prowess of at least one person who regularly criticizes the press.
I am content with the career I have had, but sometimes I think back to before I had embarked on it. A couple times I was offered jobs on newspapers, and I wonder what would have happened if I had accepted one of them. As with many of you, I have liked and disliked many of the news sources I have encountered in my life. I wish that I could trust their every word, but that has never been and will never be. I have been part of or witnessed events that have been later reported by news outlets. Almost always, I have found some flaw in the resulting story while, at the same time, usually finding much that was accurate. I have learned what Kevin Young in his important book Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News states, “Daily news changes, evolves; it is truth, on a deadline.”
Of course, journalism has flaws. I have learned that from my readings through the years as well as from my direct, but limited, experiences with the media. But even so, I know that journalism is still one of the most important careers anyone can have.