Opinion

It's all about truth — when you can find it

The pursuit of truth is often the starting point of any reporter’s career.

For myself, after coming out of the armed forces — drafted during the Vietnam Era — truth became somewhat of a Holy Grail.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve talked to a lot of folks who say their time in the service, or even four years at a college that wasn’t in their home town, forced them to grow up.

It was the same for me.

And since I’d been raised in the Midwest, and force-fed on alleged facts and John Wayne movies, the shock to my system of seeing how the world really worked was doubly effective in pushing me toward reporting as a career.

I wanted to rub the citizenry’s collective nose in the societal lies that I felt, in the first bloom of disenchanted youth, were all there was.

Imagine my disgust when I realized many readers didn’t care — and even worse, many readers had a conception of truth that paltry discovered facts could not alter.

Most reporters are cynics, and I fear it’s because we are first disenchanted and then appalled on our daily rounds that we become so.

Don’t forget, we often see people acting solely out of ego. We cover crime and politics, two fields of endeavor where human nature often doesn’t display its best side.

But reporters are people, too, and so we learn to work within the rules of our chosen trade.

Forcing people to see our truth usually gives way, and pride of place is taken by the desire to tell the story, tell it well, and tell it briefly.

We also usually learn that the best stories don’t always generate the most reader response, and that the troublesome stories are seldom the ones where we anticipated difficulties beforehand.

Yet, after 24 years in the business, I find I can still be surprised, even shocked at times.

I have just finished two weeks of covering the Michael Kleinfelder trial.

It was an interesting case. Kleinfelder, a tall, handsome 30-something sheriff’s deputy, was accused by a former babysitter, 13 and 14 at the time of the alleged offenses, of child rape and child molestation.

The trial was based primarily on opposing testimony — what attorneys call a “he said, she said” case.

Kleinfelder testified that the girl “idolized” him and that he “mentored” her. But he was adamant that his relationship with the girl, 17 years his junior, was totally aboveboard.

“Nothing inappropriate” is how the deputy phrased it.

On the stand he was forthright, looked straight at the jurors, and seemed to be hiding nothing.

But the girl also testified.

She seemed both poised and nervous, as befitted a 15-year-old girl caught between the worlds of childhood and adulthood.

She made eye contact with both her attorney, Deputy Prosecutor Neil Wachter, and Kleinfelder’s attorney, Clifford Morey.

She seemed to be hiding nothing.

The jurors must have been as confused as I was and could come to no agreement concerning Kleinfelder’s guilt or innocence.

It was an interesting trial, but the horrible truth of what I’d just witnessed didn’t sink in until after this first go-round (Kleinfelder will be retried in October) ended in a hung jury.

The truth is, one of these two attractive-looking, forthright-seeming people is, in some respect, truly evil. One of them was trying to ruin the other person’s life.

If you believed the girl, Kleinfelder was a person in a position of trust who took advantage of a young person, emotionally and physically, and then called her a liar in public to save his skin.

If you believed Kleinfelder and his attorney, then the girl was a vindictive — possibly emotionally disturbed — youth who was willing to ruin a good man’s career and very life because she felt scorned by him.

I don’t know which of the two of them was telling the truth. But since their stories were diametrically opposed, I know one of them was lying through his or her teeth.

The younger version of Dennis would be certain who was true, and who was false, and maybe that’s why people strive so hard for certainty (and not just young people).

Not knowing who lied is somehow more disturbing. And points up the difficulty in capturing the truth and nothing but the truth with no more than instincts, a pen and a tape recorder.

There is always truth, but there are also a lot of times where that same truth hides from us despite our best efforts.

And that’s a fact, if not the whole truth.

Dennis Wilken can be

reached at (360) 876-4414.

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