Irresponsible news reporting is bad for our nation

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Like an intermittent buzz or rattle inside my car while driving, stories and memories of irresponsible news reporting are appearing this week at odd times. These memories and stories are troubling for the future of news reporting. Especially, not exclusively, political news reporting. Irresponsible news reporting has been around a long time, and it drives out responsible reporting, and that’s bad for the profession, the nation, for people duped by it.

It’s also bad because people with something to offer civilization will stop talking to reporters.

This week I finished reading author James Bradley’s book, “Flags of Our Fathers,” a story of the six Marines portrayed in the famous World War II photo of the American flag raising at Iwo Jima. James Bradley’s father, John Bradley, was one of those six Marines. The author devoted four years researching the story of these Marines, until, he said, “I knew each of them like I know my brothers.… And I had grown to love them.”

It was fascinating reading of James Bradley’s discoveries along the way, and how he was able to separate myth from truth in writing “Flags of Our Fathers.” I was also sad to learn John Bradley, the father, was soon soured by irresponsible reporters, and refused to speak with them about his experience as a corpsman on Iwo Jima.

“Dad [had] been astonished…to see how frequently reporters embellished interviews with him, even making up quotes when it suited their flowery visions. ‘They have the story written before they interview me,’ was his oft-repeated opinion of the Fourth Estate,” wrote James Bradley.

In the late 1970s, early ‘80s, working as a new freelance writer with a deep interest in capturing for posterity stories of musicians I admired, I ran into that same suspicion of reporters among musicians.

After interviewing Allman Brothers drummers Jaimo and Butch Trucks, Jaimo’s wife, Candy, asked if she could read my edited interview before publication. Without hesitating I said, “Yes.” Candy was surprised, and I was surprised by her surprise. I never considered my interview subjects reading their interviews an imposition or big deal.

But it was a big deal. Candy told me about reporters adding fake quotes to Allman Brothers stories.

Levon Helm, perhaps best known as a member of The Band, lead vocal on their classic recording, “The Weight,” had a similar distrust of reporters. I had to scrap an interview when Levon refused to be interviewed with my tape recorder. His backwards logic was he “didn’t want to be misquoted.” I even offered to give Levon the tape after I transcribed it. No dice.

Years later, working at the Maine State House as a legislative communications staffer, one news reporter seemed to always have his story written before interviewing legislators. This reporter was just looking for a quote to drop into his narrative.

When the reporter wasn’t getting from a legislator the answer he wanted, he would ask, “So what you mean to say is [fill in the blank]?” When unsuspecting legislators nodded or said yes, it was a safe bet the reporter’s clarification would be in the news story as the legislator’s words.

Irresponsible reporting, across all news media, is getting worse. Where does it go from here?

I hope I’m wrong, but I’m not confident mainstream news outlets can save themselves. And one great danger of internet news reporting is racing to be first, not accurate, with stories.

“Well, aren’t web news stories designed to be updated and corrected?” a State House reporter once asked me. Yes, the web is designed that way. But that’s not a license to ignore accuracy in reporting. Honesty never gets old.

NOTE: My follow-up column on ranked-choice voting will follow the May 23, 2018 court hearing on that topic.

Scott K. Fish has served as a communications staffer for Maine Senate and House Republican caucuses, and was communications director for Senate President Kevin Raye. He founded and edited AsMaineGoes.com and served as director of communications/public relations for Maine’s Department of Corrections until 2015. He is now using his communications skills to serve clients in the private sector.

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