Sep
01
1997

The Right of the Story

Paul Harvey peddles tall tales--with a conservative kick

ABC probably doesn't want people to think it's in the business of passing off urban folklore stories as real news, or altering the facts of stories to fit a conservative spin. But that's what one of its most listened to broadcasters does--six days a week.

Paul Harvey is regarded as a broadcasting icon. An institution. His radio show, distributed by the ABC Radio Networks, is carried on more than 1,200 radio stations and, according to his own press releases, is heard by 23 million listeners six days a week.

Even if you make allowances for self-promotion, his audience exceeds that of talkmeisters Rush Limbaugh and Dr. Laura Schlesinger. Harvey is advertised as the most listened-to broadcaster in the world.

For more than 40 years, Harvey has been charming listeners with his folksy, down-home style. He calls his broadcasts "visits." While he is perhaps best known for his Rest of the Story feature, three generations have been brought up on his twice-daily newscasts, a 5-minute morning version and a 15-minute noon broadcast. These newscasts consist of a combination of rip-and-read wire copy, with Harvey's patented pregnant pauses and unique inflections, along with a sprinkling of anecdotes passed off as news.

Here's a typical story from his May 1, 1997 broadcast:

For what it's worth, San Antonio, Texas, woman motorist, 45, arrested when a mechanic told police he found 18 bags of marijuana under the hood of her car. The woman is indignant. She asked that the mechanic only check her oil, not look under the hood.

A cute story, but one that set off my BS detector. I called the San Antonio Police Department and read the piece to a spokesperson for their public information office. "I have been here two years and never heard of that story," he said. I also e-mailed the San Antonio News Express. The on-line managing editor, Jon Donley, replied, "I've been a journalist here for 14 years and I can't believe I missed this story."

Urban Legends

Others have tried without success to track down the sources of some of Harvey's "news."

The following story aired on May 5:

When a bird crashes through an airplane cockpit windshield it's a hazard to plane, to crew and to passengers. Our Federal Aviation Administration a while back experimented with several transparent windshields before discovering one which would bounce the bird off without cracking. A special gun developed at Texas A&M launched a dead chicken against the aircraft window until engineers could determine the precise angle of impact which would prevent the window from breaking.Well, British engineers having a similar problem with the front windows of high-speed locomotives asked to borrow our chicken launcher and they loaded a chicken into their cannon and they fired against their locomotive window. Well, the ballistic chicken shattered the windshield, it went through the engineer's hair, it embedded itself in the back wall of the engine cab. The British, stunned, asked our FAA to review their test procedure to see what they did wrong.

The FAA did review it. And replied with a four-word recommendation. Quote, "Try a thawed chicken."

After this story aired, Jenny Nelson, a reporter for the Bryan-College Station Eagle, Texas A&M's local paper, checked into it (5/6/97). She called Paul Harvey's Chicago office and talked to June Westgaard, his secretary, who told her, "To the best of my knowledge, the story was passed on to Mr. Harvey by a news stringer."

If so, there's no telling where the stringer got it from. "There's a great deal of advanced transportation research going on here, but none of it involves chickens," Bernie Fette, spokesperson for A&M's Texas Transportation Institute, told Nelson. "I've heard it for at least 15 of the 20 years I've been in Bryan-College Station," a spokesperson for the university said. "I think it's a story that shows up occasionally. I think it's kind of an urban legend."

Jan H. Brunvand is an author and columnist who has published several books on urban legends (among them

The Choking Doberman, The Mexican Pet and Curses! Broiled Again). "I have a copy of Harvey's book For What It's Worth (1991) which I annotated for the urban legends I found," Brunvand wrote in response to my inquiry--"Nine stories, for sure, including several classics. Thus, I take his title to signify that these are 'worth' little as truth, but perhaps more as amusing fiction. The trouble is that many Americans get much of their 'news' from Paul Harvey."

Brunvand listed several familiar urban legends documented as folklore in his books--and presented in Harvey's book as fact, often with names, places and dates attached to lend them spurious credibility. These include the story of the drunk who drives home in a police car; the old, rich woman who rams the car that steals her parking space; the woman who puts an ice-cream cone in her purse upon meeting a movie star. Harvey retells the popular tale of the women who drop to the floor of an elevator when the owner of a Doberman tells the dog to "sit"; usually the dog-owner is a famous black man, but in Harvey's version his name and race are not mentioned. Writes Brunvand:

Paul Harvey seems to present as "news" mostly the whimsical, offbeat, slightly cockeyed stories, but delivering them in his deep, resonant, fatherly sort of voice which apparently lends credence to them. Perhaps some of his fans receive them more as tabloid entertainment than hard news; at least some of his listeners regularly send me notes saying they heard such and such a legend on Paul Harvey. Relying as he does at least partly on listener input, Paul Harvey might be thought of as an amateur part-time folklorist, except that he doesn't distinguish folklore from fact. To my mind he's the epitome of the old (journalistic?) slogan, "The truth never stands in the way of a good story."

Beyond Tall Tales

If Harvey were just telling cutesy tall tales, his lackadaisical attitude toward fact might be more easily dismissed as harmless. But much of his news consists of stories re-cast into Harvey's conservative mold, presenting a world under attack by welfare recipients, big government and labor.

Take this shot at labor unions broadcast last April 16:

Would you agree to pay taxes to support labor union activity? Well, you do. Federal employees whose salaries you pay may also be labor union officials whose salaries you pay. Even when they are taking time away from their jobs for union activity.Heritage Foundation discovers that you are spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year on government workers performing non-government work. In just one agency of government, the Social Security Administration, it amounts to the total pay of 200 full-time workers. In the postal service, 838 workers. In the IRS, 253 full-time workers. If the employee is a union official, then he or she is allowed to collect full-time pay while off on union activities.

Unfortunately, here, as in many other cases, Harvey failed to tell the rest of the story. As anyone familiar with labor contracts would tell you, it is customary for union representatives to be paid for their work-related union activities, such as handling grievances or conducting collective bargaining talks. This would apply to both public and private sector unions. Hardly the scandal Paul Harvey would have you believe--leaving aside the fact that his biggest example of "taxes" paying for union activity is the postal service, which derives all its revenue from sales of postage.

Another story reflects either outright carelessness or deliberate distortion. This was contained in his April 10 broadcast:

Well, United States congressmen are learning Old World ways. Democrat David Obey and Republican Tom DeLay climaxed a debate on the house floor yesterday with some shouting, escalating into shoving and vulgarisms. Spectators say Obey initiated it and the vulgar language was his.

Which spectators were those? According to news reports, written mainly by journalists who were in the press gallery at the time, the incident occurred when Obey confronted DeLay with a newspaper clipping that disputed a point DeLay was making on the floor. The Boston Globe's account of what happened next (4/10/97) was typical: "'That's chicken shit,' Delay, the third-ranking Republican in the House, shouted away from the microphone but in hearing range of reporters. He jabbed a finger into Obey's chest, then shoved him. Several bystanders . . . leaped forward to separate the pair." While some reporters noted aggressive finger-pointing on the part of Obey, even DeLay acknowledged (Milwaukee Journal, 4/14/97) that the Wisconsinite hadn't said anything off-color.

Something Smells

But it can't be carelessness that would account for the next story (4/26/97). It has to be read in its entirety to be appreciated:

In a courtroom in Essex County, New York, in front of family and friends, Glenda Duell was shackled by the sheriff, taken from her husband and two young children. Court ordered to serve six months in prison. And to pay a fine of $68,000. And when she gets out of prison Glenda Duell must spend the next five years on probation. Then when she gets out of prison her husband, Kent Duell, must begin a six-month sentence. He must pay another $68,000 in fines and he must then do five years on probation. The sentence must be stayed on appeal for the moment.But what in the world could the Duells have done? Robbed a bank? Murdered somebody? No, District Attorney Ronald Briggs says what they did was violate environmental law. And indeed, under existing environmental law that family could have been sentenced to 1,200 years with fines exceeding $30 million. All because their home's septic system malfunctioned.

Even though, now hear this, even though their family's septic system had been designed and approved by the department of Housing and Urban Development. Now there wasn't any proof that raw sewage had spilled out of the system, but even if it had it was a HUD system which had failed. Nonetheless, it was the Duell family which got sued.

The judge in the case admitted he didn't understand what law the family had violated. He asked the prosecutors for help but the prosecutor couldn't understand the law either. The prosecutor finally put in a call to the government environmental lawyers and it was their opinion that got the family convicted, quote, for serious criminal behavior. And one looks on and wonders.

A clipping from the Adirondack Journal (1/17/97) tells a much different tale. It seems the Duells owned an apartment building in Olmstedville, N.Y., which, five years ago, developed a broken pipe in the septic system. The Duells refused to make repairs despite repeated warnings. The Journal reported:

As a result of their failure to repair an open sewer pipe, raw sewage ran directly from the apartment toilets to the lawn and down to a nearby stream. . . . In November 1996 a jury convicted the couple of 164 felonies and misdemeanors for knowingly allowing sewerage to run out of their septic system at the Olmstedville building for an intermittent period of five years.According to the assistant district attorney, "You could see a broken pipe from the road, and the raw matter was flowing out in recognizable form onto the lawn where it would wash down to a nearby stream. The town of Minerva, Essex County officials, and people from the Department of Environmental Conservation all followed up on complaints but there was no compliance."

In a month of listening to Harvey, there were several other stories that lacked the ring of truth, but contained insufficient information to make fact-checking possible. However, of all the shows I monitored, none was as disturbing as his response to the Heaven's Gate suicides (4/12/97): "Someday, I am sad to say, our Supreme Court is going to have to specify limits on speech rights and on religious rights."

It's troubling to hear such a popular broadcaster making a pitch for restrictions on freedom of speech--especially when he's used his own freedom to spread folklore, half-truths and propaganda.

Sidebar: The Rest of the Story

On June 9, I wrote the following letter to Paul Harvey:

Dear Paul Harvey News,I am a writer preparing an article on Paul Harvey and his newscasts. I have researched a number of his news stories and found some appear to be fictitious or have had their facts changed enough to render the story of dubious value.

I would like to interview Paul Harvey on these issues to include his response in my article. Please contact me at the above address so we can arrange a suitable time for a telephone interview.

On June 30 I received the following response, signed by Harvey's secretary, June Westgaard:

Thank you for your June 9 letter and for the vote of confidence it included. Because of Mr. Harvey's confining schedule we must ask that he be excused from anything extracurricular at the present time. Thank you for your loyal listening.

--D.W.

Dan Wilson is a reporter for the Appleton (Wisc.) Post-Crescent.