If Your Mother Says She Loves You, Check On It

Edward H. Eulenberg? Arnold A. Dornfeld? Rolfe Neill? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Journalism is a difficult profession. Major stories are often complex and ill-defined. Witnesses and experts may be self-interested and unreliable. The following motto for reporters highlights the need to double-check every bit of information:

If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out.

Both Edward H. Eulenberg and Arnold A. Dornfeld have received credit for this expression. They were demanding veteran editors at the City News Bureau of Chicago. Would you please explore the provenance of this adage?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in the “Chicago Tribune” of Illinois on March 30, 1970. The article stated that Arnold A. Dornfeld who was night editor of the City News Bureau of Chicago was retiring the next day. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

After 44 years with City News, Dornfeld has boiled down his advice on journalism to a single sentence: “Chum, if your mother says she loves you, check on it.” That advice, which Dornfeld admits he borrowed from another newsman, has been an icy baptism into reporting for many of the “City Press kids.”

Thus, Dornfeld popularized the saying, but he disclaimed authorship. Dornfeld wrote a 1983 book titled “Behind the Front Page” in which he attributed the saying to colleague Edward H. Eulenberg.

Interestingly, Eulenberg’s 1988 obituary gave him credit for a harsher expression of the same type: “If your mother tells you she loves you, kick her smartly in the shins and make her prove it”. QI conjectures that this statement was toned down to yield the motto mentioned by Dornfeld. Previous researchers introduced this conjecture. Detailed citations are given further below.

Here is an overview sampling with dates showing minor and major variations of the saying over time.

1970 Mar 30: Chicago Tribune
if your mother says she loves you, check on it

1972 Sep 11: Philadelphia Daily News
If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out

1973 Dec 30: Chicago Tribune
If your mother says she loves you—check it out

1980 Jan 20: The Charlotte Observer
If Your Mother Says She Loves You, Check Her List

1983: Behind the Front Page by Arnold A. Dornfeld
If your mother tells you she loves you, check on it

1988 Jan 12: Chicago Sun-Times
If your mother tells you she loves you, kick her smartly in the shins and make her prove it

1997: Writing Changes Everything, Edited by Deborah Brodie
If your mother says she loves you, get a second source

In 1970 the Associated Press news service also wrote about Dornfeld’s retirement and attributed the saying to him: 2

Dornfeld is known best for his practical approach to journalism. One of his tips for reporters is, “Chum, if your mother says she loves you, check on it.”

In 1972 Rolfe Neill who was the editor of the “Philadelphia Daily News” stated that the slogan was helpful to him as a neophyte journalist. The phrasing of this instance was a bit different. This adage used “tells” instead of “says” and “check it out” instead of “check on it”: 3

Some of the best advice I got as a young reporter was: “If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out.”

In 1973 journalist Casey Bukro of the “Chicago Tribune” printed another anonymous instance with “says” and “check it out”: 4

. . .most Americans really don’t understand the press and how it works. They don’t know about the restraints under which reporters work, ranging from libel laws to badgering city editors who tell reporters: “Check everything out. If your mother says she loves you—check it out!”

In 1976 popular syndicated columnist Earl Wilson credited the saying to Edward Eulenberg: 5

In this skeptical age, Ed Eulenberg, assistant city editor of the Chicago Daily News, cautions young reporters: “Be wary, if your mother says she loves you, check on it.”

In 1980 “The Charlotte Observer” of North Carolina published an article with the following title: 6

If Your Mother Says She Loves You, Check Her List

The body of the article stated that Lillian Carter, the mother of former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, had been asked to compile a list of the best presidents. She only rated her son sixth best. Thus, the title of the piece was a humorous modification of the adage.

In 1982 the collection “Good Advice” compiled by Leonard Safir and William Safire included the following entry: 7

Caution to a young reporter: Be wary. If your mother says she loves you, check on it.
— Ed Eulenberg

In 1983 Arnold A. Dornfeld published “Behind the Front Page: The Story of the City News Bureau of Chicago”, and he ascribed the motto to Eulenberg: 8

One of these men was Edward H. Eulenberg, the editor who has been credited with coining the bureau’s slogan: “If your mother tells you she loves you, check on it.”

In December 1983 a piece in “The Philadelphia Inquirer” attributed an instance to a police officer: 9

“If your mother says she loves you, check her out.”

That’s advice Police Commissioner Morton B. Solomon gave so often—not always in jest—in his 33 years and eight months on the Philadelphia force that it is indelibly connected with his name in department lore.

Eulenberg died in January 1988, and his obituary in the “Chicago Sun-Times” contained an intriguing information about the origin of the motto: 10

He was a legend, and the older he got, the more celebrated he became. His admiring pupils almost always recalled him as the hard-boiled editor who advised young reporters, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

But such was his zeal for the truth that he once confessed, “I never said that. What I said was, ‘If your mother tells you she loves you, kick her smartly in the shins and make her prove it.’” It sounded tough, and he meant it to be.

The earliest published evidence of Eulenberg’s astringent remark known to QI occurred in this 1988 article. Nevertheless, Eulenberg may have used it decades before. QI hypothesizes that Dornfeld or another colleague tempered Eulenberg’s remark to yield the adage in the 1970 citation.

Eulenberg’s 1988 obituary in the “Chicago Tribune” did not mention kicking shins; instead, Eulenberg received credit for the widely circulating version of the adage: 11

Edward H. Eulenberg, 80, a City News Bureau and Chicago Daily News reporter and editor for 50 years, painstakingly trained hundreds of the city’s journalists there and at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, where he taught. He is credited with originating the dictum for reporters: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

In 1990 reporter Susy Schultz of the “Chicago Sun-Times” suggested that the motto of the City News Bureau of Chicago had changed over time: 12

Even the bureau’s unofficial motto, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out,” has softened with age. When originally uttered by the late Edward H. Eulenberg, a 30-year-veteran of the bureau, the phrase was: “If your mother tells you she loves you, kick her smartly in the shins and make her prove it.”

Edward H. Eulenberg died in October 1991, and the obituary in the “Chicago Tribune” linked him to the adage: 13

He may be best known, however, for his fixation on accuracy.
“If your mother says she loves you,” he often said, “check it out.” That saying—and the journalistic tenet behind it—stuck with many of Dornfeld’s former employees who went on to work at prominent news organizations and to win Pulitzer Prizes.

In 1997 “Writing Changes Everything: The 627 Best Things Anyone Ever Said About Writing” edited by Deborah Brodie included the following variant: 14

A wonderful writer/teacher named Rivers taught me the rule every reporter must know: Verify everything. If your mother says she loves you, get a second source.
—Marshall J. Cook, writing teacher

In 2018 Susy Schultz published an essay on the “Medium” platform. She reiterated the viewpoint she expressed in the 1990 citation, and QI concurs with her analysis that the saying evolved. 15

In conclusion, the earliest published evidence located by QI appeared in 1970. Arnold A. Dornfeld indicated that he popularized the saying “If your mother says she loves you, check on it.” However, Dornfeld disclaimed authorship, and in his 1983 book “Behind the Front Page” he credited Edward H. Eulenberg. Eulenberg’s 1988 obituary says he confessed that his original statement was “If your mother tells you she loves you, kick her smartly in the shins and make her prove it.” There was a long delay from 1970 to 1988, but QI finds this assertion credible.

(Great thanks to Nick Plessas and Mary Brandt who sent QI a tweet and an email respectively about this adage. This inspired QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Brandt pointed to the helpful 2018 piece by Susy Schultz. The hypothesis in this article was previously voiced by Schultz in the 1990 citation. Additional thanks to Barry Popik for his pioneering research on this topic. He found citations beginning in 1974.)

Notes:

  1. 1970 March 30, Chicago Tribune, ‘Dory’ Ending 44 Years at City News by John Maclean, Section 1A, Quote Page 2, Column 2, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest)
  2. 1970 March 30, The Terre Haute Tribune, News Bureau Editor Retires (AP Associated Press), Quote Page 14, Column 4, Terre Haute, Indiana. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1972 September 11, Philadelphia Daily News, The Editor Talks With You by Rolfe Neill, Quote Page 27, Column 1, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1973 December 30, Chicago Tribune, Thou shalt note – A challenge to the ethics of journalists by Casey Bukro, Section 2, Quote Page 3, Column 5, Chicago, Illinois. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1976 June 28, The Morning Call, Earl’s pearls by Earl Wilson, Quote Page 25, Column 4, Allentown, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1980 January 20, The Charlotte Observer, The People Page: If Your Mother Says She Loves You, Check Her List, Edited by Linda Benefield, Quote Page 10F, Column 1, Charlotte, North Carolina. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1982, Good Advice, Compiled by Leonard Safir and William Safire, Topic: Journalism, Quote Page 180, Published by NYT Times Books, New York. (Verified on paper)
  8. 1983, Behind the Front Page: The Story of the City News Bureau of Chicago by A. A. Dornfeld, Chapter 17: Legendary Dividends, Quote Page 206, Academy Chicago Publishers, Chicago, Illinois. (Verified with scans)
  9. 1983 December 18, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Solomon Helped Restore Public Confidence in the Police by Edwin Guthman, (Editor of The Inquirer), Quote Page G07, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (NewsBank Access World News)
  10. 1988 January 12, Chicago Sun-Times, Article: Edward H. Eulenberg, 80, Chicago journalism legend by M. W. Newman, Quote Page 62, Chicago, Illinois. (NewsBank Access World News)
  11. 1988 January 12, Chicago Tribune, Edward Eulenberg, master reporter by Kenan Helse, Quote Page A13, Column 1, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest)
  12. 1990 October 7, Chicago Sun-Times, Wire service celebrates a century of city news by Susy Schultz, Quote Page 67, Chicago, Illinois. (NewsBank Access World News)
  13. 1991 October 20, Chicago Tribune, Arnold Dornfeld, 84, legend in journalism by Joseph Kirby, Quote Page A8, Column 4, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest)
  14. 1997, Writing Changes Everything: The 627 Best Things Anyone Ever Said About Writing, Edited by Deborah Brodie, Chapter: “The Angel in the Marble” — Researching, Revising, and Re-envisioning, Quote Page 80, St. Martin’s Press, New York. (Verified with scans)
  15. Website: Medium, Article title: Let’s change this journalism motto because ‘if your mother says she loves you, check it out,’ doesn’t check out, Article author: Susy Schultz, Date on website: Feb 13, 2018, Website description: Medium is an U.S online publishing platform with a mixture of amateur and professional writers and publications. (Accessed medium.com on October 26, 2021) link