As our various Authors continue to wrestle with the realities underpinning the arguments they wish to advance, Lou Cannon takes us on a trip down memory lane to remind us how, like damaged genes becoming replicated and subsequently passed on as enduring freakish mutations, “wrong facts” can become embedded in the repository chromosomes of public discourse:
When print was king in the pre-Internet days before Google and other search engines, reporters relied on the newspaper clip file, which often doubled as an anthology of past errors.
These files were kept in the newspaper or magazine library, almost universally called “the morgue,” but this was a misnomer. Actually, the information, or misinformation, stored there never seemed to die.
Once a “wrong fact,” as an editor of mine called it, made its way into the clip file it was guaranteed to reappear in subsequent stories, acquiring an added (if bogus) authenticity with each subsequent use. When the “wrong fact” appeared in a prestigious newspaper, it spread like a low-grade virus, living forever in the clip files of other publications.
Covering Ronald Reagan as a beat reporter in both Sacramento and Washington, and later becoming his biographer, I was forever awash in Wrong Facts.
When Reagan ran for governor of California in 1966, for instance, he addressed a timber industry trade group, which was panting to log the redwood forests of the state’s north coast.
In a speech that could fairly be described as pandering, Reagan said to the lumbermen: “A tree’s a tree, how many do you need to look at?” This insensitive rhetorical question was tailor-made for Democrats depicting Reagan as a foe of all things environmental. Not content to use a statement that spoke for itself, however, Democrats decided to improve it. They had Reagan saying, “If you’ve seen one redwood, you’ve seen them all.”
Gov. Pat Brown, seeking a third term and taking too lightly the Reagan challenge, cited the altered statement, which became embedded in numerous clip files as a Reagan quote. This enabled Reagan truthfully to deny, sometimes in mock indignation, that he had uttered the words attributed to him. What Reagan actually said fell largely by the wayside.
Reagan was elected governor and began a long and successful political career, but the statement he never made about the redwoods outlived him. Several years later an editor who’d been rummaging in the clip files substituted the false statement for the real one in a magazine article I had written. I corrected it just in time, but it was only a temporary victory. The phony version of the quote has appeared since then in various books and articles.
Reagan is hardly the only politician to be remembered for words he never said. President Jimmy Carter’s nationally televised speech of July 15, 1979, was described at the time — and is remembered still — as the “malaise speech,” although Carter never used that word at all.
Just as in the old days of newspaper “morgues,” these instant decisions also generate later mistakes or omissions. An example of both can also be found in the coverage of the Supreme Court decision on the health care case.
First, the vote concerning the Medicaid portion of the ACA decision was 7-2, not 5-4. Yet the latter tally has become embedded in the Google search that is today’s equivalent of the newspaper the clip file.
Hence, most future searches on the ACA decision are likely to find the 5-4 number upholding the law but not the 7-2 part of it on Medicaid, which is crucial for states. You can test this for yourself, as I did, by searching for the court’s decision on the ACA, or if you prefer, “Obamacare.”
An example of an omission in the coverage of this issue concerns one of the most popular features of the ACA, the one requiring insurance companies to allow children living at home to remain on their parents’ health care plan until they are 26. How many people know that nearly two dozen states already provide such protection? (The age differs from state to state, although 25 or 26 is the most common.)
If you are a pathological liar or pathologically damaged in some other way and cannot help blurting out whatever you desperately think will help you save face in a losing argument, there is nothing to be done but to pity you, and there but for the grace of fate go we all as well.
If you are not congenitally defective in that way, though, do try to take a care not to pass on bad informational genes mimetically. You only end up poisoning the pool we all as minds cannot escape slithering around in.
H. M. Stuart