Richard M. Nixon came to Charlotte campaigning for president in 1968, when I was a reporter at The Charlotte News. When Nixon made a stop at the local television station, WBTV, I was there. I was assigned by my newspaper to the death watch, to be nearby in case someone shot him. Or shot at him.
Thank goodness that didn’t happen, but that assignment gave me my first closeup look at national reporters who follow presidential candidates around the country, some of the Big Boys of my old craft. Back then almost all of them were males.
The speech Nixon gave was embargoed, which meant it couldn’t be reported until it aired. So some of the national reporters left to get something to eat and left a friend to cover for them.
I was there when the Big Boys began returning, meeting their colleagues in the lobby of the station, asking what Nixon had said.
I heard this exchange:
Big Boy #1: “What’d he say?”
Big Boy #2: “He said, a, a, wait a minute,” and he turn the page of his notebook. “He said, ah, can’t read it.” He turned another page. “He said something like…”
It was pivotal moment in my career: Something like? Something like! “Something like” isn’t good enough. Word for word, what did the man say?
From that day on, for almost 40 years, I taped recorded almost every face-to-face interview I conducted.
Postscript: I was only accused once of a misquote and that involved a telephone interview — I never recorded phone conversations. I don’t criticize reporters who do tape phone calls, didn’t then and don’t now. They have their way of doing business, I had mine. Here’s the problem. If you record phone conversations pretty soon you get to be known for that. That kind of reputation would have made some sources reluctant to talk with me on the phone for fear I might be taping them. I didn’t want that.
Coming Friday: Handling Bad News