Fact-Checking and the Five Stages of Journalistic Grief

By Jack Limpert

I spent some of the weekend working on a post about editing—it seemed an interesting look at how five editors might see one sentence differently. I posted it at 8 this morning:

When Do You Change the Writer’s Words?

One of the sentences I have on a small square of paper that’s tacked up where I can see it every day:

“Death ends a life, but it does not end a relationship, which struggles on in the survivor’s mind toward some resolution which it may never find.”

The sentence is spoken at the start of the play, “I Never Sang for My Father.” A middle-aged son is returning home to see his father, a difficult man nearing the end of his life, and the son is giving the audience an idea of what’s coming.  When the play, written by Robert Anderson, opened on Broadway in 1968, the son was  played by Hal Holbrook, the father by Alan Webb.   In the beautifully done 1970 movie version, adapted by Anderson, the son’s words are spoken by Gene Hackman, with Melvyn Douglas the father.

It’s a sentence I often look at and  think about, probably because so many people I’ve loved are gone, and I’ve sometimes wondered what I would have done with it if it had appeared in a story I was editing. Would I have changed the sentence? Or left it alone?

I asked that of some of the editors I’ve worked with.

Bill O’Sullivan: “It has an elegance to it, though yes, it could be edited—it doesn’t actually need the second ‘which.’ Or change it to ‘that.'”

Howard Means: “In my teaching days, i would have changed the second ‘which’ to ‘that’ and thrown in some shorthand meant to convey the distinction between non-restrictive and restrictive clauses. My editing instinct, though, would have been to simply deep-six the ‘which’ repeat. All that said, it’s a swell and evocative quote. P.S. Who the writer is also has a huge influence on the editing. For Robert Hughes, i leave the second ‘which.’ For many other writers, I take it out … and pour myself a stiff drink.”

Dick Victory: “The second ‘which’ doesn’t do damage to the idea and it even offers a nice faint echo of the first one. But had I edited the sentence I would have almost automatically struck the second ‘which.’ I guess Struck & White have struck again.”

Ken DeCell: “There’s another way to edit the sentence, which is to add a comma before the second ‘which.’ The survivor is struggling toward ‘some resolution,’ not a specific resolution that the mind may never find. The final clause is an appended thought, not a conclusion of the previous clause: ‘Death ends a life, but it does not end a relationship, which struggles on in the survivor’s mind toward some resolution, which it may never find.'”

Mike Feinsilber: “This sentence doesn’t bother me as written, or spoken. I think it reads better, or listens better, without a comma before the second which. A comma there gives too much emphasis to the final which phrase which, after all, may be an afterthought.”

As a magazine editor, I probably would have cut the second “which,” though I agree with Howard that when you’re editing a Robert Hughes or any other well-established writer, you give the writer the benefit of the doubt. I do wonder if Robert Anderson, as a playwright, inserted the second “which” because the sentence was meant to be heard, not read.
==========
About 60 seconds after putting up the 8 o’clock post, I had one of those nagging thoughts: Did you do enough to check the accuracy of that quote you love so much? I went back to Google and put in “Robert Anderson death ends a life” and at the top of the list was the quote from goodreads.com and what I had used was accurate. But then I remembered a high school textbook, Adventures in Appreciation, our daughter Ann had in her room that included a chapter on “I Never Sang for My Father.” I dug it out and here’s the actual sentence from the play:

“Death ends a life, but it does not end a relationship, which struggles on in the survivor’s mind toward some final resolution, some clear meaning, which it perhaps never finds.”

Sixty seconds after that, I deleted the “When Do You Change the Writer’s Words?” post and let the five editors know that the post had been put up but then taken down.

Then the five stages of journalistic grief—denial, acceptance, anger, depression, what can I do to salvage something from the screw-up.

Maybe goodreads.com had taken the offending quote from the movie, not the play. Here’s the sentence from the movie: “Death ends a life, but it does not end a relationship, which struggles on in the survivor’s mind seeking some resolution it may never find.” It’s almost the same as the goodreads.com version but missing the second “which” which had so vexed the five editors.

In Robert Anderson’s 2009 obituary in The Guardian, here’s another reference to the sentence in question: “The sensitive, semi-autobiographical play was turned into an even better film a year later. Anderson received one of the film’s three Oscar nominations, as well as winning the Writers Guild of America award. The other two were for its stars, Melvyn Douglas, as the dying, domineering father, and Gene Hackman as his long-suffering son, who utters the poignant line: ‘Death ends a life. But it does not end a relationship.'”

Okay, lesson learned about relying too much on what’s easy to find on Google.

Michael Gaynor is the editor at The Washingtonian in charge of fact-checking (most of it done by interns) and I sent him this note: “As you will see, I had built a post around a quote from a play, but then had to kill it when I found out that the quote I had taken off the Internet (goodreads) was not the same as the quote in the actual play. From a fact-checking point of view, is this a fairly common problem—when you’re checking something on the Internet, what can you depend on?”

His answer: “Yeah, it happens all the time. When we quote from published material, I always tell the interns to find that exact piece of published material, since it’s the only real primary source. That could mean finding an old newspaper article we quote from or a line from a play like this one—I’ve even had them search movie clips on YouTube to make sure writers transcribed dialogue correctly. In this instance I probably would’ve trusted Google Books, where you can find the whole text in its original form.”

A final lesson learned: When you have one of those nagging thoughts, don’t ignore it. Something in the back of your mind is trying to save you.

Comments

  1. Excellent and instructive and entertaining post. Also nice to be reminded of the movie (I never read the play). I still remember the movie’s ending so clearly — the father dying without even an apple in his hand.

  2. Jack, good article but as for fact-checking the quote? According to another source: “Death ends a life. . .but it does not end a relationship, which struggles on in the survivor’s mind. . .towards some resolution which it never finds. Alice said I would not accept the sadness of the world. . . .What did it matter if I never loved him, or if he never loved me? . . .Perhaps she was right. . . .But, still, when l hear the word Father. . . .It matters.” (I assume the ellipses are for dramatic pause, not deleted dialogue.)

  3. Len, the play starts with the son Gene talking to the audience: “Death ends a life, but it does not end a relationship, which struggles on in the survivor’s mind toward some final resolution, some clear meaning, which it perhaps never finds.”

    What you are quoting comes at the end of the play, with Gene again talking to the audience and using some of the language from the opening. And, yes, the ellipses are for dramatic pause.

  4. As a writer and sometime editor, I have to remind myself that sometimes it is best to leave the text alone, especially dialog. Gene is in a loop. His thought is unfinished, just as the relationship is without closure and so his words are imperfect and in their imperfectness is where the perfectness lies.

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