The cardinal sin of journalism is putting words into someone else’s mouth, which is why I almost never do it unless I’m absolutely certain I know exactly what my subject is struggling to say, but for some reason can’t.
Take, for example, an interview I did with Chuck Clark, media liaison for the Little A’Le’Inn in Rachel, Nevada. Mr. Clark, a retired astronomer, spends a lot of time surveilling the night skies over Area 51 in hopes of spotting unidentified flying objects. I asked him why, in his opinion, he sees more lights in the skys than, say, the local ranchers do.
“Because it’s late at night,” he answered. “While I’m out sky-watching, the ranchers are cutting wood.”
It makes no sense unless you understand that by “cutting wood” Clark meant “sawing logs.” So I took the liberty of changing two words, and now that I look back on it, I suppose I shouldn’t have. I was just trying to be…helpful!
Problem is, if one writer takes liberty with quotation marks, it’s a sure bet that lots of other writers will follow in his footnotes. That’s because writers are lazy by nature and will go to great lengths to avoid fact-checking stuff they glibly steal from one another.
For example, awhile back I had this idea to turn a photo I’d snapped of New Zealand motorcycling legend Burt Munro into a poster. In the upper left hand corner of the image was a space just begging for an inspirational quote. So I turned to a movie review penned by David Edwards in Cycle World Magazine:
Now technically, the line isn’t attributed to Burt Munro but rather to Anthony Hopkins, who portrays Munro in the feature film, “The World’s Fastest Indian.” The feature film, in turn, is based upon a 16mm documentary produced by Roger Donaldson. Here’s what the real life Burt has to say in “Offerings to The God of Speed:”
“You can live more in five minutes in a motorcycle in some of these events I’ve been in than some people do in a lifetime. You live more in five minutes.”
Obviously, the quote needs work. So here’s how it appears on page 30 of Donaldson’s 2003 screenplay for “The World’s Fastest Indian.” Prior to departing for Bonneville, Munro is chatting with his young friend Tom,who wonders if the geriatric speed demon ever worries about being killed in a motorcycle crash.
“You can live more in five minutes riding a bike like this flat out, than some people live in a life-time,” replies Burt. “You can live more in five minutes!”
Now we all know that great actors, like great writers, are always open to improvisation. Thus in the film’s final cut, Hopkins responds haltingly, as if it’s not a line from the script but rather something that just popped into his head:
“You live more in five minutes on a bike like this, going flat-out, than some people live in a lifetime. And, uh, yeah…more in five minutes.”
I still prefer the version I stole from Dave Edwards. I think it’s a lot better than this one, penned in a recent issue of American Motorcyclist Magazine by Mike Seate:
“You live more in a few seconds at 150 miles per hour than most people do in a lifetime.”
Seate attributes the quote to Anthony Hopkins, but if indeed Hopkins ever said such a thing, he must have said it off the record, because it’s not in the movie.
In any event, Burt Munro went faster than 150 miles per hour on his 1920 Indian Scout and much, much faster than my crazy cousin John Bogus has gone astride his vintage Bultaco. No matter, I have taken the liberty of putting some words into John’s mouth—just in case somewhere down the line a movie is made about his attempt to set a land speed record. In which event I hope to cash in big on this poster.