Do you write stories to dispel rumors?
“A lie can run around the world before the truth has its boots on.”
That’s one of the few quotes or sayings I can summon up at will. At some point it was etched into my memory. An internet search credits it to Terry Pratchett, a recently deceased but very popular British author of fantasy novels whom I have never read.
As you might expect, lies and rumors are things we deal with often in this business. I get at least one unsigned, scribbled letter a week accusing someone of something, imploring the newspaper to look into this or that. Sometimes they are comical in their attempts at anonymity, but even then they very often make damaging accusations against decent people.
And then there are the run-of-the-mill rumors that seem to be more prevalent than ever. A Facebook post or an email comes across that falls into the conspiracy theory category but will start getting lots of traffic and suddenly an innocent, decent person is in the crosshairs of the online crazies.
When Haywood County Manager Ira Dove resigned unexpectedly earlier this month, the rumor mill caught fire. Every avenue we explored turned up no smoking gun, no evidence that anything untoward or unethical was behind his decision.
But everywhere I went for the next couple of weeks, people were pulling me aside or gently guiding me away from nearby ears with a hand on my elbow: “What’s up in Haywood County with all the resignations and now the county manager? Have you heard anything?” “Someone said it was related to Wanda Greene,” who was Buncombe County’s manager and is reportedly under some kind of federal criminal investigation as information comes out about massive salary payouts to herself, relatives and co-workers.
It turned into one of those rare times in journalism, an instance where debunking rumors somehow seemed the appropriate avenue and entirely necessary. And so we wrote a story asking about the resignation of Dove and several others. Here’s Haywood County Commission Chairman Kirk Kirkpatrick’s response: “I can understand why people would want to make a connection between this and Buncombe County, but there’s not” a connection, he said.
We in the media business take heat for spreading untruths. But sometimes — as in this case — we take it upon ourselves to try and dispel rumors.
In researching the connection between journalism and rumors, I came across this from Bob Woodward, the famous Washington Post investigative journalist who helped uncover the Watergate scandal that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. “There are people who take rumors and embellish them in a way that can be devastating. And this pollution has to be eradicated by people in our business as best we can.”
In this case, everyone was looking for a smoking gun when Dove retired. As far as I can tell, there isn’t one. I don’t know him well, but what I do know of Dove would have led me to that same conclusion even before we did the reporting. He spent many years in Haywood County doing good work to help citizens and the employees who labored alongside him. And after we spent some time looking under rocks and behind closed doors, that’s what I still believe.
This has always been a very unique profession. In this era when our president famously discredits the media on an almost daily basis, when the number of mediums with which we share information growing at a furious pace, journalism by reporters and editors who work hard to get things right and adhere to old-school standards still matters.