1993 Pulitzer nominee Life Lessons

If It’s in Print, Believe It (or Not)

Mirthology column, 1st run Thursday 17 September 1992 in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

By Ben S. Pollock
Copyright 1992 Ben S. Pollock

Too many people — and you’re probably one of them — disbelieve everything they read.

Oh, come on, now. You know who I mean.

The other 50 percent (statistical margin or error plus or minus 49 percentage points) trust every word. After all, “they” wouldn’t print it if it weren’t so.

The writer is setting up the reader to look ignorant, right? No, look at this as a lesson in school. Then we can play in the garden.

News reports’ inaccuracies and perceived biases come from basic fallibility and plain disorganization. To overcome these, serious journalistic periodicals, like this one, have three ways of proving their integrity.

One. Naming people who are quoted shows you that you can call them up yourself if you don’t believe the media.

Two. Attributing facts or opinions to “anonymous” subjects occurs after readers find the identified sources in the phone book and call them during dinner.

Readers should phone news makers after bedtime. Reporters have mealtimes reserved for their calls.

Did someone say food? Vine-ripened sliced tomatoes, topped with fresh chopped basil, drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil and speckled with sea salt.

That sounds inviting. … Wait, who said that? Never mind.

Three. There have been two number threes.

The obsolete method of demonstrating press sincerity — after cited and discreet attribution, discussed above — was the direct observation of the reporter. For example, the scribe on the police beat would count the number of fire trucks outside the burning building.

This was phased out because readers stopped trusting fact-gatherers.

Currently, the reporters asks the battalion chief how many united are parked in front of them. The official instinctively asks not to be named.

Now, nobody believes either of them.

Awarding-winning journalism may need only three roads toward a convincing truth, but some writers get away with a fourth.

Federico, is that you?

OK, the fourth method is not taught in journalism school, but it is standard, You should know about it. Columnists, how-to-ers and other experts may announce the truth, like this:

“Bake 30 minutes at 350 degrees.” Sez who? Sez me.

“Shred newspapers for a cheap mulch.” Why? It’s common knowledge.

But if everyone knows how to bake bread and slow weed growth, Ben, why bother writing it?

Because only some people know such things, Federico. The rest need advice.

Students, you say you can’t see him? Then let’s go meet the mischief maker. It’s time for that recess, anyway.

Federico is a two-foot sprite responsible for the garden at my home, the Bengalow. In his cotton tan tunic and oversized sun hat, he looks like a back-to-the-earth Jewish leprechaun.

He tries to ensure that I write responsibly. Federico spends the rest of the day disproving any garden manual that I hope will increase my harvest.

When I transplant sweet bell peppers, this sprite switches them for jalapenos. He ensures that carrots planted in April won’t mature until the next March, then be 2 inches long.

I don’t foul up everything; Ben needs little help. If you look closely, folks (go ahead, walk on the lettuce. It bolted to seed before he remembered to pick it), he has five tall, spreading tomato vines. Look at all the leaves! Now, count the fruit. Both of them. He over-fertilized.

Thanks, Federico. I admit to being fallible and disorganized, but only a little. If only I could find a neighbor to count my tomatoes for you. Unfortunately for me, he wouldn’t want to be identified for the record.

Class is dismissed. We’ve had too much sun for today.


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