Friday, November 18, 2011

Truth and Accuracy

"Don't expect the truth unless you're willing to tell it."

Sally Field
Absence of Malice (1981)

I was a journalism student in college when "Absence of Malice," starring Paul Newman and Sally Field, premiered 30 years ago today.

And I felt, when I saw it, that it had some lessons for me that would be useful when I graduated and found myself working in the field.

The problem was that I found the reality was different from the Hollywood story. That should come as no surprise to anyone.

Oh, sure, there are overzealous, overeager reporters like Sally Field's character who will report gossip and hearsay, even when innocent people are likely to be hurt. In an era of instant news and intense pressure to be first with a story, whether it is true or not, there seems to be more of them than ever.

There are unethical prosecutors, like the one who leaked the contents of a file to a reporter, hoping to put pressure on a suspect with no regard for the consequences. I don't think there has ever been a shortage of them, regardless of the era.

And there are people like Newman's character, who was the focus of the prosecutor's investigation and Field's newspaper article.

The case looked good. The story seemed solid. The motivations were, for the most part, noble. The only problem was, he was the wrong guy.

In my experience, that's like the fabled perfect storm. All the elements are not in place at once in every situation. Most prosecutors are ethical, and so are most journalists. Never mind the public images of lawyers and reporters. They're mostly — but not entirely — the products of Hollywood's fantasy world.

But the truth wouldn't make much of a movie so the writers of the story (which included a former newspaper editor) told a tale that, in the words of Field's character, was not true but it was accurate.

If they thought they could get away with it, I'm sure there are some prosecutors who would be tempted (perhaps more than that) to leave files from investigations on their desks where a reporter was sure to find it.

And I'm sure there are reporters who would be tempted (again, perhaps more than that) to look in those files and spill their contents into the next day's papers without regard to whether any of it was true or was affirmed by more than one person.

I don't know what they were teaching students about ethics in law school in those days, nor do I know what was being taught in every journalism class across the country, but I can testify that my journalism classes emphasized double– and triple–checking facts.

One source's word for it simply was not good enough.

We were not so far removed from Watergate in those days, and my professors sang the praises of Woodward and Bernstein, repeatedly urging us to follow their lead (so to speak) and have at least two sources for anything.

And we were encouraged to remember — always — the human side of any story. Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable was an article (again, so to speak) of faith. Human beings were not collateral damage.

They still aren't, no matter what you may have heard or thought.

In a way, I suppose, that was the lesson Newman's character tried to teach the rest of them in the second half of the movie.

In the article that revealed that Newman was innocent because he had been in another state at the time of the alleged murder, it was also revealed that his alibi and lifelong friend (Melinda Dillon) had been having an abortion. He had been with her, giving her the support she needed, but her character was Catholic, employed by a Catholic school.

Field's character's lack of sensitivity to that fact had tragic consequences. When Field's character identified Dillon's character by name in print, the public exposure was too shameful for her. She killed herself.

Field's character clearly had no malicious intent. She was merely doing her job, but that did not change the reality.

To get even with those he felt were responsible for his friend's suicide, Newman's character hatched a plan to ensnare the newspaper reporter (part of which included a false social relationship with her) and the prosecutor.

When everyone had been exposed, Field's paper began working on its coverage of the story. Another reporter was assigned to write about Field and her relationship with Newman. Field was told that she would be quoted directly and to describe the relationship in any way that she wished.

"Just say we were involved," Field said haltingly.

"That's true, isn't it?" her colleague asked.

"No," Field replied, "but it's accurate."

That, as I say, is how I feel — at least, in hindsight — about "Absence of Malice." The story wasn't true. It wasn't even, as far as I know, a fictionalized account of an actual event.

But it was accurate, and it provided — as it still does — a valuable lesson in ethics — for journalists and everyone else.