Tuesday, December 12, 2006

You can believe everything you read in the newspaper...

...until you've been personally involved in a story that's reported.

I was thinking about this while reading the (always generous) comments to my "Blogiversary" post of last week. I reprinted my first post as part of my "celebration."

And there are a few things wrong with it... as some of you pointed out: Not everyone in the Blogosphere is a callow youth, sporting piercings and tattoos.

This was a most distressing discovery for me because -- if no one out here remembered Jack Benny, Bob Hope or George Burns -- I could just steal, uh, recycle their material and grow rich in the process. Hey, it worked for this guy:

But this erroneous impression of who was out here came from reading the papers: Blogging, I read, was for the Young People. And my initial experiences into the Blogosphere seemed to confirm it: I initially went on line so I could read my Older Daughter's blog while she was studying in Europe.

The questionable reliability of "The Media" is nothing new. Remember The Front Page? That's a link to the 1931 original; the movie has been remade over and over again since, most successfully in 1940 as His Girl Friday.

The story accurately depicts the intense competition -- and, uh, creative writing -- that characterized Chicago's many newspapers in the early 20th Century.

After my father died, when we were cleaning out the house, I found a small handful of fragile newspaper clippings from 1946... when my father's father, a fireman, died while fighting a fire. The clips -- from several different papers -- got the broad outlines of the story right... but my grandfather's age varied widely, as did the reported circumstances... even the name of my grandfather's brother, who came on the scene after my grandfather had been stricken.

I have not often handled high profile cases or been quoted in the press... but it has happened.

Once I was blasted, uphill and down, across the front page of the Sunday paper. Fortunately, it was Sunday paper in Joliet, not Chicago... and it could have been much worse.

I used to do insurance defense work. Sometimes that meant being hired to represent individuals or companies that were being sued. These would be our clients, just as surely as if they had picked us out of the Yellow Pages -- but it was the insurance company that paid our fees and I and my ex-partners lived in mortal fear of offending any carrier. The insurance companies that hired us did not want publicity on their cases -- and not entirely without reason: A highly publicized case can become a big dollar case. Of course, so can a case that receives no publicity at all.

So my ex-partners strictly forbade us to talk to the press. But, as a one-time student editor and reporter-wannabe, I knew I could speak "off the record." And that's what I did when the Joliet reporter called to discuss a case that was set for trial the day after the story appeared. He'd heard the other side of the story from the plaintiff's attorney -- a Joliet attorney -- and was thoroughly riled up. I had to educate him on the legal issues and factual problems in the case... but since I couldn't speak for attribution much of what I gave him he couldn't use. Where would he say he got it from? Independent research? All I could hope to do was tamp down the flames; I -- and my client -- still got scorched.

I know I saved that article (the reporter did send me a 'tear sheet' as I asked him to do), but I haven't seen it in 10 years. Maybe someday I'll come across it again.

I don't say believe nothing you read; I say read everything with a slightly skeptical eye and think about what may lie behind the words on the page. Or screen. Because sometimes the full story isn't reported... or it can't be reported, as in the example above. And don't rely on only one source for news... unless, of course, you rely solely on me....


And one more thing about that initial post. I said there that I would conduct this blog "[w]ithout worrying about telling the abosolute, unvarnished truth at all times because, you know, comedy is about exaggeration, not about careful reporting."

It's strange how that's worked out. I've changed names of people, and even some places... but I've wound up telling my stories pretty straight, as I see them anyway, without changing or enhancing the details. A lot of stories that might be too 'revelatory' -- something that would surely give me away if someone who knew me well stumbled on these essays -- have simply not been told. And I haven't made anything up out of whole cloth. Yet.

Perhaps I'm just lazy.

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