Biff America: Damn the lying media
VAIL CO, Colorado
Here is what I know. Two guys died in Clayton County, Iowa sometime in the mid 1800s. They were from upstate New York and were visiting friends. They left their friends’ house to walk to town – a distance of only a few miles. A fierce, freak snowstorm blew in, and they were found a couple days later frozen to death.
They were buried in a small town cemetery; the community chipped in for gravestones.
I also know that, about 50 years later an older lady, also from upstate New York, was visiting that same town and was shown the gravesite because the person she was visiting thought she would find it interesting. It seems she and the two snowstorm victims were from the same area.
Upon seeing the gravestone the old lady nearly collapsed; one of the boys was her former fiance. She told the story of how they were engaged to be married and he took a trip out west and never returned; she always thought she’d been jilted.
I learned this tale from a buddy who had a recent newspaper from his hometown in Iowa. The paper mentioned the story in relation to a fundraiser hoping to raise funds to keep up on some old gravestones – including the two I just mentioned.
About 15 years ago, I wrote a column about the deaths and discovery. Included were all the facts I just gave, which I believed to be true.
What I didn’t know to be true, and in fact what I’d just made up, was that the two were found lying on the ground hugging each for warmth. I also made up that the that the older woman was a retired seamstress who left her home in upstate New York in disgrace after getting jilted and lived a spinsters’ life in New York City. I added that she stayed in Iowa and would put fresh wildflowers on the grave of her former beau in spring and summer.
The piece ran in a few Colorado papers and also was picked up by a couple of newspapers in Iowa.
A few weeks later I got a call from a sweet lady from the some Iowa historical society. She told me she loved the column and that the story was one she has studied and been fascinated with her entire life. She went on to ask about my research, as I had unearthed facts about the story that she was unaware of.
I’ve always been of the mind that, when you must deliver bad news, you need to say it quick and bluntly – kind of like ripping off a bandage.
“Oh, a lot of that stuff I just made up,” I said.
There was silence at the other end of the line. Then the sweet lady asked: “I don’t mean to be rude, but, are you allowed to do that? I’m sorry, but I thought you couldn’t just make facts up and put them in the newspaper or on TV if they weren’t true.”
I wrote that column over 15 years ago, and although I had worked in TV and radio (where I often made up stuff), I was fairly new at writing. Since then, I have tried to be more clear when I’m writing fact versus when I was embellishing for entertainment or sarcasm. But still, I will stretch the truth to make a story funnier – or to make my wife look worse. For instance, I have written that the only two things my mate is afraid of are lightning and vacuum cleaners – she is not really afraid of lightning.
Used to be if you read, heard or saw something in the press you could assume that (to the best of the presenter’s knowledge) it was true. Not so any more.
Many of us grew up with Huntley and Brinkley, Walter Cronkite, Woodward and Bernstein, in them there was an expectation of truth and integrity. Did they make mistakes? I’m sure they did.
Today we still have what I consider honest and proud newsmen and women: Charlie Rose, Jim Lehrer, Andrea Mitchell and many others.
Unfortunately, with the abundance of cable channels, web reporting and blogging, there’s a bunch of stuff being published that is just plain false or taken out of context. The sad truth is many voters, like the lady from Iowa, assume if it is in print or on TV it must be true, and that will be the information they are voting on.
When I write that my mate put Tabasco sauce in my Preparation-H tube, people might or might not think that is funny or true, but they won’t pick a president or political party based on that lie.
When blogs or media outlets state that Mitt Romney really believes that “I’m not concerned about the very poor” or Obama meant, “You didn’t build that,” that is simply misleading. Both statements, heard in their entirety, make sense (at least they made sense to me). But rather than focus on the substance of the discussion and the proposed policies of each candidate, some lazy and biased media and bloggers fixate on a few words. Of course, the candidates and their PACs only make it worse when they use the misleading, out-of-context utterances in campaign ads.
There are real sources of information out there, and voters have a responsibility to pick one that makes them think rather than confirm what they would like to believe. The sad truth is, most of us don’t want to be informed but rather affirmed. (Not sure who said that, but it wasn’t me.)
But for God’s sake, do your own homework and don’t take my word for it.
Jeffrey Bergeron, under the alias of Biff America, can be seen on TV-8-Summit and read in several newspapers and magazines. He can be reached at email@example.com. Biff’s book “Steep, Deep and Dyslexic” is available from local bookstores or at BiffAmerica.net