The other day, in this hallowed space, I passed along the story of a woman whose name is extremely similar to her mother's. One of the passages from her letter, which I quoted, read:
"My problem has been the confusion of my mother and I."
A few days later, I wrote a column about a phone conversation I had had with a person of the female persuasion who works at the Department of Agriculture. She referred to her female coworkers as "girls." So, in the column, I did, too.
Now, in the first case, everyone who has ever suffered the glares of an eighth-grade English teacher knows it should be "my mother and me." And in the second example, everyone who has ever set foot in Agriculture knows that the women who work there aren't really girls.
But this journalist, like most, feels it's a cardinal sin to tamper with a quote, even if the effect is to turn it into correct English. So I stayed with "my mother and I" and with "girls," even though I knew eyebrows would be raised at enlightened breakfast tables for miles around.
What actually got raised was hackles.
One correspondent in Rockville clipped the "mother and I" column and circled the offending phrase in red. "Me! Me! Me!," began the warm, personable note that she stapled to the clipping. "She might not know, but why don't you?"
From Agriculture came a photocopy of the "girls" column, and a note that said, in part:
" . . . There are a lot of women at USDA who are working very hard at this last great stronghold of male chauvinism to get rid of the term 'girl' . . . You, and your reader, might like to ponder the thought that women get promoted more and paid more than 'girls.' "
The letter was signed, "One of USDA's women, and proud of it."
Now, I'm very disturbed by these two letters. I have always felt that my job is to report what actually happens and what actually gets said. It's not up to me to embroider, or repackage, or smooth rough edges. It's not my job to make someone look ridiculous, either. But where the decision is close, I go with the whole truth and nothing but.
That way, the reader can make up his/her own mind, and I'm not subtly helping the subject of a column look better or talk better than he/she really does.
However, sadly, I don't think all -- or even most -- of the reading public wants it this way. I have two anecdotes from the vault to prove it.
The first is from 1967. It was the first story I ever covered for The Post. Residents of a housing project in Northeast were upset because the fire department was taking its sweet time getting to fires in the complex -- or so it sometimes seemed. A meeting was arranged between project residents and the local battalion chief. I was there, notebook in hand.
The chief said, "I ain't never seen an example of the kind of thing you're talking about." I quoted him exactly that way in the next morning's paper.
By 11 a.m., I had received 30 outraged phone calls, many of them from firemen. Every caller said the quote couldn't be accurate because firemen don't talk that way. When I insisted that this one had, they all said, well, if he said "ain't," you should have "mended" the quote so he didn't look bad.
I almost took up a career as a beachcomber at that very moment.
The second incident arose in 1975, when I was covering the Bullets-Boston playoff basketball series.
The Bullets had a forward in those days named Nick Weatherspoon. He played brilliantly that year against the Celtics. But he wasn't the most verbal of human beings. So, when I asked him how come he was playing such terrific defense, he replied, as best I recall:
"Well, like, you know, I just get in there and, well, bleep, I, you know, just do the best I can, right?"
I did the guy a favor. I quoted him as saying: "I, you know, just do the best I can, right?"
He cornered me the next night. Said I had made him look like he didn't know how to talk. Wondered why I didn't make "repairs" to his quotes "like all the other writers do."
Sorry, Nick. Sorry, firemen. Sorry, English teachers and Agriculturists and everybody else. Honesty is my policy -- because it's the best policy.