Hubert Mewhinney? Sam Kinch? Stuart Long? Adam J. Schiffer? Jack Z. Smith? Rick Sanchez? Anonymous?
Question for Quote Investigator: Journalists are taught to value fairness and objectivity. If there are two sides to an issue then fairness demands that both sides should be presented in an article. Yet, sometimes only one side makes sense. The other side is deceptive or delusional. Unfortunately, a timid journalist may be reluctant to express a strong stance.
The proper attitude of a good journalist can be summarized with a parable. If one person says it is raining and another person says it is not raining then a journalist should not simply quote them both. Instead, a journalist should look outside to ascertain the truth and relay it to the public.
Would you please explore the origin of this parable?
Reply from Quote Investigator: In 1974 journalists Sam Kinch and Stuart Long published a book about Texas politics. The book credited “Texas Spectator” journalist Hubert Mewhinney with formulating the didactic tale under examination in the late 1940s. The tale referred to the two most powerful Texas politicians during that era. Boldface added to excepts by QI:1
It was designed as a criticism of the then current attitude of Texas newspapers—that you quote what the man says, and that’s all.
“If Jimmy Allred says it’s raining, and W. Lee O’Daniel says it isn’t raining.” Mewhinney wrote. “Texas newspapermen quote them both, and don’t look out the window to see which is lying, and to tell the readers what the truth is at the moment.”
Mewhinney’s tale clearly suggested that a good journalist should look out the window and report the truth. QI has not yet been able to search an archive of the “Texas Spectator” in the 1940s. So QI has not verified the presence of text above in a specific newspaper issue.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1979 the column “Heloise” printed a humorous letter that presented a conversation between two children. Twelve-year-old Trina stated that it was not raining, and eleven-year-old Neal insisted that it was raining. In this scenario, looking out a window did not resolve the disagreement:2
Trina: “Neal! It’s not raining! Look out the window !— you’ll see it isn’t!”
Neal: “It is raining and if you don’t believe it just ask my mother. She said it was raining, and she made me wear this raincoat!”
In 1992 James McEnteer published “Fighting Words: Independent Journalists in Texas” which reprinted the quotation from the 1974 book by Kinch and Long. The accompanying source note pointed to the 1974 book:3
Writing in the Texas Spectator in the late 1940s, Hubert Mewhinney criticized the timidity—and inadequacy—of the objective approach to writing the news. “If Jimmy Allred says it’s raining, and W. Lee O’Daniel says it isn’t raining, Texas newspapermen quote them both, and don’t look out the window to see which is lying, and to tell the readers what the truth is at the moment.”
In 1993 the “Austin American-Statesman” reviewed the book “Fighting Words: Independent Journalists in Texas” and reprinted the quotation again.4
In 2008 Professor of Political Science Adam J. Schiffer published “Conditional Press Influence in Politics” which included an instance of the rain parable:5
Instead of evaluating the veracity of the claims made in elite press-release posturing and debate—thereby moving us in the direction of the truth-seeking rainbow—reporters merely transmit the claims in equal doses. In essence, the story reads: “Democrats say it’s raining; Republicans say it’s not raining.” But at no point does the reporter look out the window to see if it is raining.
An author’s note for the passage above provided an attribution for the parable by pointing to Stuart Long who coauthored the 1974 book:
I heard the rain analogy from Fort Worth Star-Telegram editorial writer and columnist Jack Z. Smith at an academic panel, who in turn attributed it to Stuart Long, a longtime Texas journalist.
In 2010 CNN television journalist Rick Sanchez presented an instance of the tale:6
Just like there are some of us in this profession that are, what I call mainstream milquetoasts, you know. They’re just asking questions and they’re afraid to say the stuff that’s very important. Like they’ve got a guest on and the guest is saying it’s raining outside and then they get somebody else to say it’s not raining outside. Well, all you’ve got to do is stick your head and look out the window and you’re going to know if it’s raining or not. You don’t need two guests to tell you that, you know?
In 2013 a newspaper in Levittown, Pennsylvania printed a piece that referred to the teaching methods of British investigative reporter Nick Davies:7
According to an article in The Economist, Davies also does some teaching, and he has his students imagine that they are asked to write a report on what the weather will be like tomorrow. They interview a woman in one room who says it will be sunny. Then they interview a man in another room who says it’s going to rain. Your job, as a journalist, is not to simply write up what you have been told, he says. Your job is to look out the window.
In 2018 Adam J. Schiffer published “Evaluating Media Bias”, and he presented the tale again:8
A self-aware newspaper editor once gave this description at an academic symposium: Suppose Democrats say it’s raining and Republicans say it isn’t raining. The news report will read, “Democrats claim it’s raining, while Republicans dispute this”—but at no point will the reporter look out the window to see if it’s raining. 39
Footnote 39: Jack Z. Smith of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram conveyed this analogy during a 2003 panel on the Texas Christian University campus.
In 2019 a newspaper in Edmond, Oklahoma printed the following instance attributed to an unnamed NBC television journalist:9
Dotson said his former boss when he was a news writer for the Today Show would say, “Our job is not to report both sides. One side says it’s raining and the other side says it is not raining. Our job is to look out the window.”
In conclusion, this didactic tale was attributed to Texas journalist Hubert Mewhinney by fellow journalists Sam Kinch and Stuart Long in a 1974 book. The book stated that the tale appeared in the “Texas Spectator” newspaper in the late 1940s. QI has not yet verified this 1940s date with a precise citation. Nevertheless, Mewhinney is the leading candidate for creator of this tale.
Image Notes: Depiction of a rainy night from Jack Finnigan at Unsplash. The image has been cropped and resized.
Acknowledgements: Great thanks to Jim Cornelius, Jason J. Hunter, Paul Hackett, Thomas Baekdal, Tim Leighton-Boyce, Victor Zambrano, and Jeremy Cantor whose discussions and inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.
- 1974, Allan Shivers: The Pied Piper of Texas Politics by Sam Kinch and Stuart Long, Chapter 24: A Lyndon Johnson Man—Sometimes, Quote Page 211 and 212, Shoal Creek Publishers Inc., Austin, Texas. (Verified with hardcopy) ↩︎
- 1979 January 25, Portage Daily Register, Heloise II, Letter title: Letter of Laughter, Letter from: B.C., Quote Page 6, Column 1, Portage, Wisconsin. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
- 1992, Fighting Words: Independent Journalists in Texas by James McEnteer, Chapter 6: Writing Wrongs, Quote Page 180, Note on Page 211, University of Texas Press, Austin, Texas. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
- 1993 January 17, Austin American-Statesman, Book sheds light on iconoclastic Texas journalists by Mike Cox, Quote Page F6, Column 3, Austin, Texas. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
- 2008, Conditional Press Influence in Politics by Adam J. Schiffer, Chapter 2: Understanding Media Influence in Politics, Quote Page 11 and 20, Lexington Books: A Division of Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Lanham, Maryland. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
- 2010 September 9, CNN Newsroom USA, Article: New Signs of Hope for Economic Growth; Mr. Fix-It of Auto World Makes Suggestions; Rick Sanchez Answers Critics, Authors: Ali Velshi, Tony Harris, Rick Sanchez, T.J. Holmes, and Candy Crowley, Parent organization: Warner Bros. Discovery, Headquarters: Atlanta, Georgia. (NewsBank Access World News) ↩︎
- 2013 January 31, Bucks County Courier Times: Web Edition, Article: Dangers of “Balanced” Journalism, Author: Chuck Thompson (Community Blogger), Levittown, Pennsylvania. (NewsBank Access World News) ↩︎
- 2018 Copyright, Evaluating Media Bias by Adam J. Schiffer, Chapter 4: The Real Biases, Quote Page 68, Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, Maryland. (Google Books Preview) ↩︎
- 2019 April 29, The Edmond Sun, Section: Local News, Article: Vigilant journalists uphold First Amendment, Author: James Coburn (The Edmond Sun), Edmond, Oklahoma. (NewsBank Access World News) ↩︎