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The Boston Globe OnlineBoston.com Boston Globe Online / Metro | Region
A note of apology

By Patricia Smith, Globe Staff, 06/19/98

y father used to read me newspaper stories at bedtime.

Yeah, I thought it was weird, too. But I was so enamored of him, so much the dictionary definition of a daddy's girl, that I obediently snuggled up 'neath the covers while he cracked open the city section of the Chicago Daily News and enthusiastically related tales of robbery, murder, natural disasters, and political malfeasance. The terse blocked type below the headlines became living, breathing stories. ''Where do you think this woman was going when she got robbed?'' my father would ask. ''What was in her bag? Who was waiting at home for her? Do you think the robber feels guilty now?'' and the stories would stretch infinitely in either direction, without clear beginnings or endings.

My daddy gave the newspaper a pulse. He taught me to love its changing canvas, its omnipotent eye, its infinite throat. And since one long-ago tabloid featured his obituary, it is much too late to apologize to him for compromising that love.

But it's not too late to apologize to you.

From time to time in my metro column, to create the desired impact or slam home a salient point, I attributed quotes to people who didn't exist. I could give them names, even occupations, but I couldn't give them what they needed most - a heartbeat. As anyone who's ever touched a newspaper knows, that's one of the cardinal sins of journalism: Thou shall not fabricate. No exceptions. No excuses.

And yet there are always excuses. Usually they point to the cursed fallibility of human beings, our tendency to spit in the face of common sense, zigging when the world says zag. Sometimes excuses reveal real or imagined inadequacies, or the belief that the world, if it is to be conquered, must be conquered singlehandedly.

I've already heard from dozens of people in search of an official sound-bite, a hook upon which to hang the newly fallen wordsmith. The reason.

It may ring hollow - after the fact, excuses always do - but I always believed that I needed to do it all. Instead of popping out of J-school in a nice, neat, byline-ready package, I was fueled by a heady mixture of naivete, ambition, and an almost insane love for the powers of language. To make up for the fact that I didn't get that ''correct'' start in journalism, I set out to be 10 times as good by doing 10 times as much. Write columns. Author books. Write and perform poetry. Make films. Pen and star in plays. Gig at Scullers with a jazz band. And as accolades poured in, I strained to accomplish more.

But I didn't establish priorities, and the first casualty was time. In Boston, my face was my column. I wanted the pieces to jolt, to be talked about, to leave the reader indelibly impressed. And sometimes, as a result of trying to do too much at once and cutting corners, they didn't. So I tweaked them to make sure they did. It didn't happen often, but it did happen. And if it had only happened once, that was one time too many.

I will survive this knowing that the heart of my columns was honest and heartfelt. None of the pieces considered for the American Society of Newspaper Editors award or this year's Pulitzer Prize were doctored in any way. I will write as long as I breathe, despite the dire predictions that this indiscretion spells the end of my career. In the course of living this flawed life, I've stepped into the lives of remarkable people. They will always live in me.

But none of that changes what happened.

So to the welders, the B-boys, the preachers, and the surgeons, to the grocery clerks and bartenders and single mothers, to the politicians, PR flacks, spokespersons and secretaries, to my dear husband and family and friends, I am sorry for betraying your trust. To the editors who supported and encouraged me, as well as those who jumped ship when the mighty USS Smith began to take on water, thanks for the lessons. To those colleagues and readers who salivated daily at the thought of my head on a platter, congrats. And to the hundreds of real people who honored me with their time and stories, you are my salvation and I will hold you tight during this trial.

To every single reader, young and old, black and white, who opened their papers on Monday and Friday and trusted me to be truth, know this: You were the truth all along.

Finally, I'd like to apologize to the memory of my father, Otis Douglas Smith. He burns in my soul through this, and beyond this.

And that's his real name. You can check it.

This story ran on page B06 of the Boston Globe on 06/19/98.
© Copyright 1998 Globe Newspaper Company.

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