Saturday, October 24, 2009

Sometimes Mainstream Media Doesn't Bother with Facts

I'm not a mainstream media basher. By and large, I have great respect for the media. But I do have a pet peeve with some in the media, particularly columnists, who, enamored of a story, fail to get all the facts. Take a trivial, but evocative example appearing in newspapers all across the country today.

In Newsday, Verna Gay has a column about Soupy Sales, the comedian who passed away yesterday. (I'm not linking because Newsday is moving to paid subscriber access and a link would be pointless for most readers.) For people of my generation, Sales was a kind of comedic dadaist whose antics both hearkened back to Vaudeville and Seltzer and foreshadowed the stand-up hilarity of Steve Martin. Gay's fond remembrance of Soupy was well-deserved.

But, for the column's topper, Gay tells an apocryphal story as though it were factual. Gay wants you to know how influential Sales was, even on those revolted by his work. The story goes that a young Fred Rogers, freshly minted from seminary, was at his parents' home. They had a TV set and the young Rogers had never seen TV before. According to Gay's story, Rogers saw Soupy Sales' pie-flinging antics and, horrified by the unkindness of it all, decided right then and there to go into television.

Nice story, right? It puts the mousy, religious, naive Rogers in his place while elevating Soupy as a proponent of chaotic comedy.

The problem is that it can't be true. Or, at most, it can only be partially true.

Fred Rogers already was involved with and appearing on television before he went to seminary. In fact, while presiding over his own show at WQED in Pittsburgh, he spent eight years pursuing his Master of Divinity degree on a part-time bases. (Depending on the seminary, it usually takes a minimum of three years to get a your M.Div. That's if a person is a full-time student.)

Despite the implication of Gay's article, Rogers was also already married and had two sons, in addition to being a TV personality, when he graduated from seminary. When he did, in light of his already-established career, Rogers was called and ordained by his fellow Presbyterians into a pastoral ministry of creating television programming for children.

So, Gay's story told as if it were absolutely true, isn't.

It's a minor point. But it's the kind of thing that makes a mainstream news consumer wonder sometimes, whether in reading or listening to straight-up news accounts or commentaries: If a reporter botched this story about which even I know better, how many other stories get botched about which I don't and can't know better?

Facts are important. Even the little ones that are missed undermine media credibility.

No comments: