My collision with Andy Rooney's ethical blind spot

He makes up stuff, as this tale from 20 years ago illustrates

Andy Rooney

You’ve likely heard that Sunday will mark Andy Rooney’s final appearance on “60 Minutes.” And perhaps you’ve also read some of the accolades pouring in about the man’s remarkable career, which began as a war correspondent during World War II.

Rooney is revered by many, especially those with whom he has worked over the years.

However, I once had occasion to experience a different side of Rooney, and if we’re painting a picture of the man as he rides off into retirement, let’s make it a fuller picture.

Because Andy Rooney has an ethical blind spot – he makes up stuff -- at least he did in his syndicated newspaper column. And, if you call him on it – as I did back in 1991 – he transforms from the loveable curmudgeon you see on TV into a paranoid crank. (The Internet doesn’t remember everything that happened back then, so assuring accuracy of the details here required a trip to the library and a good 90 minutes with a bad microfilm reader.)

(What online news looked like on 9/11)

How it started

In the summer of 1991, Rooney was the famous Andy Rooney and I was editorial page editor of the local newspaper, then called The Middlesex News, now the MetroWest Daily News. Part of my job was to handle syndicated columns written by the likes of Rooney. The post-Labor Day column (.pdf) he filed for publication on Sept. 5 included this passage:

Driving to work the day after Labor Day, I passed a grade school just before 9 o’clock. Mothers were hand-holding their children to the door. My mind went into fast rewind. You don’t forget your first school days.

It didn’t happen. Rooney did not see mothers hand-holding their children to the schoolhouse door just before 9 a.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 3, 1991. He made it up.

And I know this how? Because I read that passage the day it was filed electronically by Rooney’s syndicate to my newspaper … and that day was Friday, Aug. 30. Unless he had cracked the time-travel nut, there was no way he could describe seeing a scene that happened four days after his column was delivered.

I asked my editor, Ken Hartnett, what I should do (I didn’t need to ask him what he thought). Hartnett, a former Associated Press writer and longtime editor with the Boston Globe and Boston Herald, suggested that I call Rooney … which I did. Now that may sound like no big deal, but it was to me at the time because Rooney was the famous Andy Rooney and I was some editor he’d never heard from before – or heard of, period – and I would be calling to ask him what the heck he thought he was doing making up stuff (obviously, I would put it more politely).

The call went poorly

He insisted to me that there was nothing whatsoever wrong or inappropriate about what he had written; in fact, he was incredulous that I would even raise the point. Here’s how I described it in a column (.pdf) that I would eventually write about the episode for my newspaper:

My making an issue out of it, Rooney said, was “tilting at windmills.” To buttress the point, he offered that “even Fred Friendly” would not question such a literary liberty. Friendly, for those who don’t know, is the former head of CBS News and one of the nation’s most acclaimed gurus of journalism ethics.

Friendly, who died in 1998, was at the time director of Columbia University’s Seminars on Media and Society. So I called Friendly:

At first, he wanted no part of refereeing any sparring match involving Andy Rooney; he called the “60 Minutes” star “one of my dearest friends … a superb writer who I hired at CBS.”

Yes, but … and I told Friendly what Rooney had told me, including the “even Fred Friendly” wouldn’t object part.

That got Mr. Friendly thinking, and talking, albeit somewhat reluctantly.

“Had you been in this office when you read (Rooney’s paragraph), you would have seen a raised eyebrow,” Friendly said.

“We all make mistakes,” he added, “… this one was of little consequence.”

Bottom line, though: Friendly unquestionably believed that what Rooney did was wrong.

Rooney’s reaction was even worse

Had this tempest ended there I might not be writing about it now. But it most assuredly did not end there. I sent Rooney the column I had written, which in those days – believe it or not, young people – meant that I placed a copy of the column clipped from the newspaper into an envelope and entrusted its delivery to the United States Postal Service.

A week or so later, Rooney’s reply arrived via the same route. In it he ridiculed the first paragraph of my column about him as being clichéd and shopworn – yes, it was both – and then mounted the same utterly unconvincing defense of his hand-holding scene that he did in our phone conversation.

Fair enough. But then the letter, which you can read in its entirety here (.pdf), left the rails and plunged into paranoid crank territory:

My conclusion is that Mr. McNamara’s attack was brought on by something other than the column I wrote. I suspect his negative opinion of me springs from some personal rather than professional interest.

What that interest might be, I don’t know. Over the years, I’ve written a great many things that have angered people and it seems likely that something I said previous to that Labor Day column is what was really on Mr. McNamara’s mind when he wrote so hurtful an article about me on such flimsy provocation.

He might as well have accused me of the Lindbergh kidnapping for all the similarity his “conclusion” bore to the truth; I’d never so much as has had an idle cross thought about Andy Rooney prior to learning on Aug. 30, 1991 that he makes up stuff. And here he is telling my audience that I’m a fraud? (Yes, I took that personally; still do.)

As for “flimsy provocation,” I can only assume he never read down to the part where Fred Friendly – the Fred Friendly -- said that I was right and Rooney was wrong.

Gathering additional opinions

But maybe Friendly and I were both wrong. I started calling prominent journalists from the television, newspaper and academic worlds. Polled 10 of them about this disagreement and only one offered even a tepid defense of Rooney’s position, after which he was quick to note, “I probably wouldn’t write (the hand-holding scene) the same way myself.”

You can read all 10 opinions here (.pdf), so I’ll note just a couple:

Jeff Greenfield, then an ABC News correspondent (now CBS) and nationally syndicated columnist: “To me, we’re not talking about a mortal sin here. … I love Andy Rooney; I think that he is a national resource; but in this case he’s wrong. … There’s a first, basic rule: You don’t say something happened when it didn’t happen.”

Rachelle Cohen, Boston Herald editorial page editor: “That’s really stupid! … If one of my guys had tried something like that I would have read them the riot act.” Rooney didn’t have to do what he did, Cohen said. “He could have phrased that a hundred different ways.”

20 years later

I do have one regret regarding what I wrote about Andy Rooney 20 years ago: I regret having agreed with Fred Friendly that what Rooney did was of little consequence. It’s not a minor matter, it’s really not. And the reason is simple: I have no idea how often Andy Rooney has done this kind of thing; in other words, I have no idea how many of his little observations he actually observed … and how many he made up.

I just know that he doesn’t see enough difference between the two.

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