A Likely Story…And That’s Precisely the Problem

By Steven Luxenberg

A journalist — I’m not exactly sure who — once memorably said about the process of producing a daily newspaper: “You don’t want to see how that sausage is made.”

Actually, that line wasn’t about journalism at all, which is perhaps why I couldn’t remember who said it or when. The original saying had to do with Congress. The wag was Mark Twain (1835-1910). “People who love sausage and respect the law should never watch either one being made,” he deadpanned.

No, no, it wasn’t Twain at all. Nor was the quotemeister talking about Congress, although he did unfavorably compare lawmaking and sausagemaking. “Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made,” quipped Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898), the famous Prussian statesman and architect of German unification.

I think.

A bit more research turns up no definitive source for where, when or why Bismarck uttered his famous witticism (there’s even disagreement about the exact words he used, perhaps because he said it in German and translation is an art, not a science, as someone else once said so well).

Welcome to Outlook’s world. Every week, our editing staff checks dozens of facts in the eight to 10 articles that we publish, doing our best to make sure that the sausage you receive is free of impurities and other unwanted additives. But that’s easier said than done, which someone named Anonymous said.

Quoting famous people and their famous sayings is a favorite trick of essay writers and speechifiers. Misquoting them is a close second. In the age of Google, it’s easy to go online in search of a quote and quickly find a hundred references to a butchered version of an unforgettable saying. War may indeed be hell, but what Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman actually said to an 1880 convention of Civil War vets was: “There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory but, boys, it is all hell.” The journalists there apparently decided the general had used too many words, and shortened the sentence.

Some anecdotes have become embedded in a profession’s DNA. They are lore, oft-repeated and accepted. Scientists, including one quoted in Outlook last week, love to recount a brilliant punch line delivered by 19th-century British scientist Michael Faraday when he was asked about the value of his discoveries concerning electricity and magnetism. “What is the value of a newborn baby?” Faraday sagely retorted.

Now, Faraday might have said it. I’m guessing he probably did say it — but he didn’t invent it. That distinction belongs to Benjamin Franklin, who is believed to have said it a half-century earlier. I can well imagine that Faraday, a student of electricity and of Franklin, was aware of his forerunner’s wit as well as his work.

But that’s just my speculation. Here’s the fact: The Faraday story has been told many times in many ways. My colleague Rick Weiss heard a version while interviewing a Princeton professor, and then checked it before using it in an Outlook essay last Sunday. Weiss immediately found numerous “confirmations” on the Internet. When I went online last week after a reader questioned the quote, I found dozens of retellings — and wild disparity on whom Faraday had chided. His victim was variously an unidentified member of an audience, British Prime Minister Robert Peel, British politician Benjamin Disraeli, British politician William Gladstone — and even Queen Victoria herself.

But for all those people allegedly on the receiving end of Faraday’s comment, there’s no contemporaneous record of where Faraday might have said it. That’s often the problem facing Outlook fact checkers looking for evidence of something uttered long ago. It’s hard to prove someone said it, even harder to prove that they didn’t.

Our friend Mr. Twain is a good example. For an Outlook piece last year on the differences and similarities between the Vietnam and Iraq wars, Post editor Robert Kaiser prominently quoted Twain: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.” Not suspecting anything amiss, I nonetheless checked to make sure the line was rendered accurately. I found plenty of references attributing the saying to Twain, but no evidence of where he said it or when. That seemed odd — he was famous enough for his speeches and observations to appear often in newspaper accounts.

Time to consult the experts. But to my surprise, calls to three prominent Twain scholars yielded nothing more than a knowing laugh and sympathy. They, too, had seen the line attributed to him, but the place and time was lost to history, if he said it all. So to indicate that we weren’t sure about its origin, we resorted to the passive-voice dodge: “As Twain is credited with saying . . .”

Which brings to mind the all-purpose adage that shows up in reader complaints to the paper: “You never let facts stand in the way of a good story.” I don’t know who said it first, but I’m trying to find out. We need to talk.

© The Washington Post; printed here by permission

The Washington Post
Sunday Outlook
April 17, 2005