The story of two busts and why We need to be OUR own reporters

Think about everything you’ve heard or read about the White House and Churchill’s bust, from the time Obama entered the White House until today. So much of it is wrong. Anyone who has spent any time working with reporters knows that many of them (not the good ones) source off of each other’s writing without fact-checking first. Errors live on in this way for years and years. The story of Churchill’s bust is still being incorrectly reported today.

Before I get to Churchill, here’s a great example and a lengthy aside, an old story that was only recently screwed up.

On June 28th, 1914, Gavrilo Princip was part of a group of men prepared to assassinate Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. The morning attempt failed when the wrong car was bombed. After the failed attempt, Princip, who knew the Archduke’s planned route for the day, went to the next spot in the route where he might have a chance of completing the mission. Meanwhile, Ferdinand and his wife decided to go to the hospital and visit the victims of the bomb intended for them. Unfortunately for the Archduke and Duchess, rather than head for the hospital, their driver mistakenly proceeded to drive the route previously planned, a route on which Princip had stationed himself. More unfortunate still is the fact that the driver realized his mistake and stopped the car only feet from Princip, who simply stepped out into the street and shot Ferdinand and Duchess Sophie.

That, the records will show, is what happened. But in 2003 a British television documentary stated, inexplicably, that Princip had just finished eating a sandwich when the Archduke’s car “suddenly” appeared. The director cannot remember his source for the sandwich part of the story, which cannot be found elsewhere. There are records that mention he was standing outside a café or talking to someone. But no sandwich. In fact, the likelihood that a “sandwich” was even a thing in Sarajevo in 1914 is almost non-existent. Although the documentary does not state that Princip’s opportunity was coincidental (the “surprise” could have been that he wasn’t expecting the car until later), that is how it was interpreted and reinterpreted and expanded upon until, today, the story is often told, even in classrooms, that after the failed assassination, Princip went for lunch and just got lucky when the Archduke’s car drove past the café where he had just finished eating.

It makes for a good story, the idea that Princip had just finished a Rueben and was brooding over the failed assassination attempt when, suddenly, fate delivered the Archduke into his hands. It’s a better story that “Gavrilo Princip was just following the plan, stationing himself along a part of Ferdinand’s route scheduled for later that day.” The better story tends to win over the true story.

Back to the Churchill bust. The bust has been in the oval office since the Johnson administration. When George W. Bush became president, the Churchill bust was sent off to be refurbished and repaired. Maybe Nixon had drilled a hole in its ear for a microphone. In the meantime, Britain loaned the White House a duplicate bust (probably available at fine tourist establishments throughout London) to occupy the Oval Office. However, it wasn’t a gift, it was a loan. When the original bust was all fixed up it was returned to the White House but placed outside the treaty room. The loaned duplicate remained in the Oval.

When a president leaves the White House, all the choochkies are removed and the whole place is redecorated in a matter of hours. It is a sort of American decorating miracle. Because the duplicate bust was a loan, it was removed to be sent back to England. Obama chose to keep the original Churchill bust where it had been placed, outside the treaty room. At the same time, he decided to have a MLK bust placed in the Oval Office.

But that’s not how it was reported. Again and again, even after the White House had clarified, it was reported that Obama had sent the Churchill bust back to Britain and replaced it with MLK. It is true that he did not return the original Churchill to his original spot and decided to leave him in the Treaty room. Whine about that all you want.

As promised, Trump brought Winston back to the Oval. Easy win. And despite some initially faulty reporting to the contrary, MLK is still in the Oval too. Why would pool reporters so quickly tweet that the Churchill was back but MLK had been removed when, in fact, a secret service agent was just standing in front of the MLK bust for a few minutes? Because it makes a better story.

I don’t pretend to know anything about the psychological affects of our current media environment and the impact of fake news, but I do know this. I don’t believe anything I read, even from major news outlets because, like the bad reporting  from pool journalists in the Oval Office, the traditional news organizations are trying keep their share of the eyeball pie and are not as careful as they should be or once were. I also know I have all the tools I need to be my own journalist when it matters to me to know more of the truth than I am getting elsewhere.