Scott Jenkins column: The truth hurts sometimes
Tony Hiton wants you to know that he and other officials “work hard to have open government in Landis.”
In saying so, Hilton was responding to a part of the column I wrote last week on the importance of open government and the frustration we in the press run into frequently when trying to obtain public information.
To illustrate, I used an example from my own career as a reporter when I was refused something as simple and clearly public as a meeting agenda. The incident happened to have occurred in Landis.
Hilton, a Landis alderman, took great offense.
“No such thing has occurred in this Century,” Hilton wrote in an email to my boss, which he copied to other Landis town board members. “And I have my doubts about Jenkins’ claim.”
This was only the first of several times Hilton expressed his “doubt” about my claim — followed by increasing certainty that I was, in fact, a liar. (“Pure fiction” is the term he used in one of his multiple emails on the subject.)
“You owe Landis an apology and a retraction,” he wrote.
Now, generally when someone leads a complaint by calling me a liar, I feel no obligation to respond at all. I figure if a person leaps to that conclusion, it says more about his nature than mine. But I did respond. I explained to Hilton that the incident happened in the early 2000s (yes, this century) and identified the town employee involved, which I didn’t feel was necessary in the column.
Among other things, Hilton responded that I flattered myself by thinking anyone in Rowan County would know how long ago this might have happened when I said it took place not long after I came to work at the Salisbury Post (“Actually, no one cares,” he wrote). But he allowed that, since he wasn’t on the board at the time, “I cannot dispute your account.”
This reminded me of another incident that happened when I was covering Kannapolis (a very long time ago, in case anyone cares). At a City Council meeting, a man complained drug users were leaving needles on the ground outside his apartment complex, near where children played, and asked for more police patrols. I reported it. The man called the next day and asked to meet with me in the apartment complex manager’s office.
Apparently, the manager was none too happy about this complaint, and the resident responded by claiming he never said any such thing, that I’d made the whole thing up, that I was a liar.
He demanded an apology and a retraction.
Knowing council meetings were recorded, I invited the man to come with me to city hall, where we could listen together to what he’d said. He declined.
Too often, it seems, the first response people have when they see something they don’t like in print is to say that it’s not true, that the person who wrote it simply made it up. I can’t say a journalist never takes that shortcut. We all remember high-profile stories like Jayson Blair’s. But I can say without reservation that the vast majority of journalists are conscientious professionals. They would no more fabricate details than most prosecutors would hide evidence favorable to a defendant, doctors would write illegal prescriptions or politicians would say anything to get elected.
But although the vast majority of lawyers, doctors, politicians and the practitioners of other professions are above reproach, those things happen. And just as a lawyer can be disbarred, a doctor can lose his license or a politician can be voted out of office, a journalist can and will be fired for printing what Hilton calls “pure fiction.”
We’re human. We make mistakes. And we agonize over them. But we do our best to get things right. And just because you don’t like something you read doesn’t mean we made it up.
And that’s the truth.
Scott Jenkins is news editor of the Salisbury Post.