Writing from the Heart: Just the facts, ma’am

It’s OK to stop being a soft touch all the time.


I love Mark Twain’s line, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” So here is a story of how I let a good story get in the way of the truth. My motto at the point when this story happened was facts didn’t matter, feelings did.

I was young, and way more into people-pleasing and feeling for the underdog than caring anything about truth.

When cable first came to Connecticut and they needed to fill hours of TV, somehow I ended up with a little talk show in my hometown. I had guests and conducted interviews with everyone and anyone I could convince to come on. My biggest feather in my career cap came when a company in Canada called and asked me to have on as a guest the woman who was introducing and marketing aspartame, the artificial sweetener.

She was nervous, and I was starting to become an old pro, so I spent some time making her comfortable and talking about things in general before we started taping. We talked about our favorite candies. Hers was Mars Bars; mine was spearmint leaves. We laughed because we both knew her favorite had nothing to do with Mars and mine had nothing to do with leaves.

My first question once we began was, How did they discover aspartame? She told me originally the compound was part of research into antiulcer drugs, that a man named James Schlatter discovered the sweetness completely by accident, after licking it off his finger, which she said was completely against work safety regulations. Large-scale production began in 1981. I think our interview was in 1974.

And finally after a 20-minute segment, right at the end, I asked her if there was a downside to this miracle discovery. She sort of hesitated and then said, “Well, when you heat it up to 212 ºF it turns into formaldehyde.”

Whaaaa? I honestly can’t remember what I said or how my face looked, if I kept my composure or if I said, Are you kidding me? I think I just kept going as if she had said, Nope, no downside at all. And right after I did my usual thanking the guest and signing off, and the cameras went dark, she burst into tears.

Please, she said, you can’t air that. You have to cut the part about the formaldehyde. I’ll lose my job. I’m begging you.

Of course, I’ll cut it, I said, not thinking for one moment that the public deserved to hear that fact, not thinking that my role as a host was to report actual information, not get attached to the guest and end up protecting her and her lie of omission, sacrificing the truth because I felt sorry for her. Not realizing my job was a job.

And so I did what any novice would do. I hugged her and said you did great. I might just as well have said don’t forget that’s not something you want to be sharing if you’re trying to sell this thing.

But things shifted for me after my son was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes. Suddenly, facts were all I cared about. Feelings were a luxury I couldn’t afford. Empathy could be deadly.

One night after one of the kids’ concerts, just before the family was about to go into Friendly’s to celebrate, I said to my 7-year-old boy, “Before we go in, Dan, decide what you want because the menu is going to be very tempting, and you’re going to want things you can’t have. So make your decision right now.”

He said, “I want ice cream.”

The mother of the diabetic who gave her son two shots a day and lived in constant terror said, “You know you can’t have ice cream.”

And the father who was more moderate in his approach to the disease, and also didn’t like having a child with diabetes, said, “Oh, let him have a little ice cream.”

To this day I can hear my sarcastic voice booming, “Ohhh, I’m in charge of the pancreas now? I hadn’t realized. Sure, Dan, I’ll just make the disease disappear. And then you can have a quart of ice cream! Ten quarts of ice cream! You can drive an ice cream car! You can sleep in a f______ ice cream bed for all I care!” I believe I was screaming.

We ended up going into therapy a week later.

Writing this now makes me wonder what I would do with that interview if it were today. I’m not the tough guy I had to learn to be in those scary days with a kid with a life-threatening illness. But I’m also not as soft a touch as I was as a beginning reporter.

I think for starters I wouldn’t take the assignment.

At least I feel a little less guilty because now YOU know. Even if it’s 40 years too late.