As I wasn't saying, by Cronkite
Neither great nor good: The late Walter Cronkite was a skeptical guy.
“Much of what we regard as established fact is nothing of the sort,” Cronkite said during a 1978 speech to the Radio-Television News Directors Association in Washington, D.C. “It is the stuff of myth, legend, fairy tales, gossip and hokum passed along, sometimes innocently, sometimes not. Simply because a statement is presented in an authoritative manner or attributed to an historical source does not make it true. Our profession needs to remain vigilant in not allowing the airwaves and printed page to be used to further disseminate falsehoods constructed on phony foundations.”
That statement should be inscribed on plaques and hung on the walls of every newsroom, as a constant reminder to reporters and editors to be on guard against hoaxes, to question the conventional wisdom, to double-check sources.
As for the royalty checks for those plaques, they can be sent to me. Because Cronkite never said that. I just made it up.
Similar frauds abound. And they’re a lot more difficult than this one to debunk. Shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, a mystically inclined friend told me Nostradamus, the medieval seer, had foreseen the destruction of the World Trade Center. I pointed out that the alleged prediction was, like much of what is ascribed to Nostradamus, actually the work of modern-day practical jokers who had already confessed to their online misdeeds.
My friend remained unconvinced. “You can believe whatever you want to believe,” she announced, before stalking off in search of a more gullible audience.
From Shakespeare (“Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him well”) to Bogart (“Play it again, Sam”), our cultural history is riddled with made-up quotations. As a result, journalists ought to pay a bit more attention to the intent (if not the origin) of that fictional Cronkite statement above. Before accepting the veracity of some pithy homily, it makes sense to seek a legitimate source for the material. By legitimate, I mean a source that doesn’t start with the letters “Wiki.”
If whoever edits the letters-to-the-editor section at the Maine Sunday Telegram had followed that pseudo-Cronkitian advice on July 19, he or she might not have published a letter from DeAnne Rogan of Houlton containing a long quotation from Alexis DeTocqueville that begins, “I sought the key to the greatness and genius of America …” and ends with “And if America ever ceases to be good, then she will also cease to be great.”
The quote has a considerable pedigree, having been employed by politicians of various persuasions, from Bill Clinton to Jesse Helms, to draw often-conflicting ideological conclusions. But as John J. Pitney Jr. of the Weekly Standard pointed out in 1995, “These lines are uplifting and poetic. They are also spurious. Nowhere do they appear in Democracy in America, or anywhere else in Tocqueville.”
Alas, poor Rogan. Alas, poor Telegram.
Pitney offers his own theory as to why everyone from letter writers to presidents is so enamored of made-up material:
“We could make a nasty crack about politicians who cannot tell Alexis de Tocqueville from Maurice Chevalier, but that would be irrelevant since they seldom write their own material anyway. The lyrics of politics come from staffers, whose tight deadlines often keep them from checking original sources. When they need a quotation (or a statistic or an anecdote), they lift it from a speech or an article by somebody else. That somebody probably got it from another piece, whose author got it from . . . you get the picture. Bad information tends to linger and spread.”
Play it again, Alexis.
Or as Walter Cronkite might have put it, “That’s the way it isn’t.”
At least this is good: The state of journalism in Maine was elevated, probably only temporarily, on Sunday, July 19 by the absence of publisher/editor Richard Connor’s weekly column from any of his MaineToday Media newspapers.
Would that it were so more often.