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Publication: THE CHARLESTON GAZETTE
Published: Friday, August 16, 1985
Byline: DON MARSH
hed: Striving to tell the truth, mainly On the opposite page are a number of stories dealing with newspaper credibility. They are taken from a report commissioned by the American Society of Newspaper Editors.
Honesty compels me to disclose that the page was inspired by similar stories appearing in the Bulletin, the society's official publication. To be credible, one must give sources.
There are many definitions of "credible." My personal favorite is "truthful." I've always thought Huckleberry Finn's assessment of "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" was a genuine compliment _ "That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly.
There was things he stretched but mainly he told the truth." I would settle for that. I hold no hope of the Gazette's equaling the reputation The New York Sun once enjoyed. Remember Virginia and her question? Her papa told her to ask the editor of the Sun because if it were in the Sun it must be true.
So she had the most famous editorial ever written addressed to her: "Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus." Presumably, she was satisfied. She may have been an easy mark. What kind of kid would doubt Santa yet believe everything she read in the paper?
It is not easy to be believed, no matter how pure the heart or selfless the motive. Let me give some recent examples: On Aug. 7, a story written by Bill Case appeared on page 3A of the Gazette. The first paragraph said that Gov. Moore had made a number of unannounced trips to seek economic development for the state.
The second paragraph said that the governor's press secretary disclosed Moore's travels when he was asked about rumors that the governor had been going to Atlanta for treatment of an undisclosed ailment.
The remainder of the story said the press secretary was "dumbfounded" by the rumor, that Moore had not been ill, and that Moore had visited several places.
I knew nothing of the story until I read it in the paper.
I learned later that somebody had called the city desk with the illness rumor and that Case had been assigned to check it.
I thought the story inconsequential and forgot about it. Forgot about it, that is, until Aug. 13 when I read Richard Grimes' column in the Daily Mail.
Grimes seized upon the story and decided "Journalism may have reached a new low in West Virginia." He said that linking Moore to an illness, at a time when President Reagan is recovering from cancer and Rock Hudson "is rumored" (see how careful Grimes is?) to have AIDS, is beyond belief. "That kind of unsubstantiated story can have a devastating effect on a high-ranking public official." Grimes was further outraged that other newspapers used the story.
He said Moore himself was saddened (showing, possibly, that he wasn't devastated) because he couldn't believe anyone would publish unconfirmed rumors.
"It is no secret that the Gazette dislikes Moore. The paper shoots him down every chance it gets. But this is carrying it a bit too far," was Grimes' closing which, compared to his beginning, "Journalism may have reached a new low in West Virginia," was a bit too anti-climactic.
And now for a second example. Paul Nyden wrote a story saying that the UMW's national office had called off a planned demonstration by miners at an annual "Coal Colonel Dinner" sponsored by U.S. Coal Festivals Inc. at Beckley.
The demonstration was to protest the appearance of E. Morgan Massey, who was toastmaster. The UMW is on strike against Massey mines. The national office didn't want to do anything to disturb negotiations.
Nyden quoted several people in the story, including R. Keith Walters, executive editor of the Beckley paper, and Harold Hayden, who is secretary-treasurer of the UMW district in Beckley.
Walters was president of the coal festival last year.
Nyden asked me about the story before he wrote it. I thought it was newsworthy that the national UMW would order the cancellation, particularly in view of the tension between the union and Massey's company. All I said was make sure that facts were confirmed.
I think that's why Nyden called so many people, not only Walters and Hayden but also the UMW's Washington office, miners in Wyoming County and this year's festival president.
Unfortunately, he wrote an ambiguous sentence. "R. Keith.
Walters, executive editor of the Beckley RegisterHerald, said Hayden, was "instrumental in getting Massey down here a week ago.' 1/3" Walters, Hayden and I read that to mean that Walters said that Hayden invited Massey. Both Walters and Hayden complained. I promised a correction.
A day passed before I was able to locate Nyden. He said that the two commas "R. Keith Walters, said Hayden, was instrumental in getting Massey" meant that Hayden was saying Walters invited Massey So, instead of a correction - well, it wasn't wrong - Nyden wrote a "clarification" which emphasized that Hayden did no inviting. Hayden is in a union election campaign and he said he was worried that the story would damage him.
It sounded reasonable to me. I don't believe anybody in the UMW is running on a platform built around friendship with E. Morgan Massey.
Walters, who writes a column for the Beckley paper, used what he called the Gazette's "inaccuracy" (and later an "inaccuracy or misunderstanding") as the springboard for a little moralizing.
The essence was that two conflicting views (the union's and the paper's), working together, could solve their problem.
Therefore, the union and Massey, working together, could solve their problems.
He worked his way to a socko closing sentence: "Divided we lose ." A third example: On Wednesday, a paragraph in a story about a second leak at Carbide said, "A man who said he was employed by Carbide's South Charleston plant called the Gazette and complained that the company wasn't evacuating the unit. "We're locked in here.
We've got a leak and they are not going to let us out.
When I got here (at 9 p.m.), they told us we couldn't leave. I'm scared.' 1/3" A Carbide supporter complained. He, like me, doubted that Carbide held employees hostage. He said it was a cheap shot and how did we come off printing an unsubstantiated rumor?
What happened, the night crew told me, was that the call came in near deadline, that the caller's association with Carbide was verified, after a fashion, by the number they used to call him back (it started with "747," a prefix, they were told, that is restricted to Carbide phones). So they put his quote in the paper I don't think I would have, had I made the decision. On the other hand, Don Nehlen has called several plays that I wouldn't have called - after I had the benefit of thinking them over after the game It proves that credibility isn't easy - not even when you tell the truth, mainly.