March 2, 2005

Corrections 2/21-2/28

Beer rescues a Slovakian, Harvard is a pub in Cambridge, bozo journalism about gonzo journalism, and other enlightening and entertaining corrections.

Carl Bialik

Every week, Gelf combs through newspaper corrections for the funniest and most enlightening. Sometimes journalism reveals more in its mishaps than in its success. Gelf makes mistakes, too, and when we do, we'll disclose them here.

The text inside brackets is Gelf's; everything else is a direct quote from the publication.

You Mean the Internet Lies Sometimes?

Atlanta Journal-Constitution, February 22: A column on page 3 of the Feb. 11 Wheels section recounted a story about a man who survived an avalanche in Slovakia. A one-paragraph synopsis of this story also appeared in Atlanta & the World on Feb. 2. In fact, the story is a myth circulating via the Internet and e-mail. The Feb. 11 column repeated a common Internet version almost verbatim and without attribution. The Feb. 2 synopsis was culled from the Web site of a British tabloid. We are reviewing the freelance and editing procedures that allowed these items to get in the newspaper. We'll report back on what we find and changes we plan to make. We work hard to make sure what you read is accurate and original. In these cases, we let you down. I apologize. -- Julia Wallace, Editor

[The myth, as repeated in the Feb. 11 column: "A Slovak man, Richard Kral, was trapped in his car under an avalanche and freed himself by drinking 60 bottles of beer and urinating on the snow to melt it." Amazingly, this wasn't just a throw-away anecdote, but the crux of the column, which concluded: "While it is still not advisable to drink and drive, you may want to rethink carrying a brewski or two just for emergencies. In light of recent winter storms across the United States, it might not be a bad idea to have all solutions at your disposal."

But there's more to the story: It's also appeared in Wired News, Ananova, the Charlotte Observer ("sounds like a joke, but it isn't"), and the AFP.

It was snopes.com who partially debunked this myth, reporting: "a correspondent who works for a Slovak news agency informed us that not only has the avalanche story (or any news story about an avalanche) not appeared in the news media there, but the very same tale (of Czech origin, told about an unnamed man caught in the Austrian Alps) was circulating in that country as an e-mail joke even before the heavy snows described in the article occurred."]

We Think It's In Hartford

New York Times, February 27: An article last Sunday about sororities at Harvard characterized Daedalus erroneously. It is not a campus organization, and not all-male. It is a pub in Cambridge, Mass.

[Gelf's Konstantin Kakaes, resident Harvard expert, weighed in on this correction:

Contrast the Times article with a Boston Globe article from October 2003. Both have essentially the same message: "Harvard students are college students". True enough, and what's more, easily deduced from the facts that:
1. Harvard is a college.
2. Harvard has students.
It's hard to tell which article misses the mark more, but the Times's story has some particularly egregious bits:
"[campus life] is still dominated by eight musty, male-only finals clubs with names like the Porcellian and the Fly." In fact, at most 10% of male undergraduates are members of the finals clubs, which play a marginal role on campus. But then, if the newspaper of record can't tell a bar from a club, it's not surprising that they miss the broader picture as well. It's also unfortunate to see them attempt to entwine yet another unrelated story about Harvard into the first paragraph of the article:
"which has been unsettled in recent weeks over comments by the university president, Lawrence H. Summers, about possible differences in 'intrinsic aptitude' between men and women."

True, it's just a space-filling piece in the Style section, but one nonetheless worries about the Grey Lady. Almost enough to tempt one to write the breaking-news story high up in all of our minds: "New York Times reporters sometimes go to bars; some are members of social clubs." It's a funny kind of myopia to write pieces about student life at a university in a national newspaper: Those with nothing to do with the institution could care less, and those who went there know better.]

[There's just something about that school in Cambridge that fascinates, then trips up, the press. To wit:]

Los Angeles Times, February 27: An article in Saturday's Section A said Harvard's board chose Lawrence H. Summers in July 2001 as the university's 27th president since its founding in 1640. Summers was chosen in March 2001 and took office in July 2001. Also, the university was founded in 1636.

Washington Post, February 25: A Feb. 23 article about a faculty meeting at Harvard University included a quote from physics professor Daniel S. Fisher that was misreported by the Harvard Crimson, the only news organization permitted to attend the meeting. The Crimson has since corrected the quotation and reported that Fisher said: "For the good of Harvard, Lawrence Summers should resign. Or the Corporation -- who have shown shockingly little interest in what has actually been going on -- must fire him. We cannot wait for irreparable harm to be done to this great institution."

[Here is the quote as originally reported by the Crimson and the Post: "For the good of Harvard, Lawrence Summers must resign, or the corporation, for the good of Harvard, must fire him. We cannot wait for irreparable harm to come to Harvard." They sure let the corporation off easy. Poor Fisher was also apparently victimized by the Yale Daily News, which reported he said: "The atmosphere is horrendous. Summers runs things like a dictator." But that quote was off the record, as the YDN later noted in a correction. Unfortunately, by then the Crimson had already picked up the quote.]

Washington Post, February 23: A Feb. 22 article incorrectly quoted Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers as saying in a January speech that there are differences in "innate aptitude" between men and women that help explain why men more often excel on science and engineering tests. As stated earlier in the article, Summers used the phrase "intrinsic aptitude."

Boston Globe, February 24: Because of a reporting error, a Page One story yesterday about a meeting between the president of Harvard University, Lawrence H. Summers, and faculty members misattributed comments made by protesters. It was Summers's critics who chanted, "Lay off Larry." Also, because of an editing error, the story failed to mention that the campus newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, was allowed to cover the meeting.

[One would have hoped copy editors would have noticed the improbability of "pro-Summers students chanting 'Lay off Larry!'" Unless maybe they thought the students meant people should leave Summers alone. Perhaps his critics were even saying 'Lay off, Larry!' It's hard to punctuate a chant.]

Absolute Truth Is a Very Rare and Dangerous Commodity in the Context of Professional Journalism

Chicago Tribune, February 24: Questions have been raised about the accuracy of a quotation attributed to Hunter S. Thompson that ran with his obituary Monday and in an editorial Tuesday: "The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side." The quote, which has appeared often in print and electronic media in recent years, differs from a version in Thompson's "Generation of Swine" that reads: "The TV business is uglier than most things. It is normally perceived as some kind of cruel and shallow money trench through the heart of the journalism industry, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs, for no good reason." There is no second sentence about "a negative side." Some observers believe that in its frequent retelling, "the TV business" became "the music business" and the second sentence was added by persons unknown.

[Urbanlegends.about.com notices that the quote has had many other incarnations.]

Cleveland Plain-Dealer, February 26: Because of incorrect information from the Associated Press, a front-page story Monday about the death of writer Hunter S. Thompson mistakenly attributed to former President Richard Nixon the view that Thompson represented "that dark, venal and incurably violent side of the American character." Actually, that was what Thompson said of Nixon.

[By the way, Thompson said the quote above, about "absolute truth." Or at least I think he did.]

A Miraculous Recovery

Los Angeles Times, February 22: An article in Monday's California section about the Los Angeles mayor's race referred to former Rep. Edward Roybal as "the late." Roybal, 89, is not deceased.

Too Little, Too Late

Washington Post, February 26: A Feb. 7 Metro article reported that Rafed al Janabi, an Iraqi immigrant and U.S. soldier, had been waiting for nearly two years for a security check to be completed to become a U.S. citizen. After the article was published, a spokesman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said Janabi's initial application for citizenship, filed in September 2002, was rejected in April 2004 because he had not disclosed past criminal charges. Court documents show that a criminal case against Janabi was dismissed in 2002 and later expunged from his record. After his citizenship application was rejected, Janabi immediately reapplied and is awaiting the results of a new security check, the agency spokesman said. Officials at the agency did not mention these facts when they were asked about Janabi's case before the article's publication.

[Gelf senses a possible trend of officials correcting unfavorable articles after not taking the opportunity to get facts straight before their publication -- thereby making the article look less credible. Kudos to the Post for calling out the agency.]

Remind Me, Why Did We Write About This Company?

Washington Post, February 24: A Feb. 17 Business item incorrectly reported the second-quarter profit of Avatech Solutions Inc. of Owings Mills. The company earned $9,482, not $9.5 million. For the comparable period a year earlier, it earned $4,725, not $4.7 million.

[That Avatech posted a profit of $9.5 million on $5.2 million in revenue, according to the original Post article, is a feat of modern accounting.]

Wear Fur. Buy My Fur.

Newsday, February 22: Steve Cowit, whose letter to the editor "Wearing fur is OK" was published last Tuesday, works in the fur industry. That identification was not included with the letter.

[Newsday could have avoided giving Cowit free ad space with no disclaimer, simply with a Google search. Here's his store, which reprints an article from the L.A. Times in which he appears prominently as a furrier. Having learned its lesson, Newsday publishes a response letter with an editor's note pointing out that "the writer is a senior writer for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals."]

A Luxembourgian's English Struggles

Slate, February 25: President Bush did not make the statement attributed to him in the Feb. 25 "Bushism." European Council President Jean-Claude Juncker said it at a joint press conference with President Bush.

[Juncker's statement: "The United States and the U.S. stand together in support of the Iraqi people and the new Iraqi government, which will soon come into action."]

The Dog Ate Your Email

New York Times, February 22: An article on Dec. 24 about voting problems in the presidential election in Ohio misattributed a request for a recount in that state. It was sought by candidates of the Green and Libertarian parties, not the Green and Independent parties. The error was pointed out on Dec. 27 in an e-mail message from a reader, which was misplaced at The Times.

The State of the Art column in Circuits on Dec. 30, about the CableCard, which fits into some television equipment to perform the functions of a conventional cable box, misstated the charge for such a card from one cable company, Adelphia. It is about $1.75 a month, not $1.50. This correction was delayed for fact-checking of numerous points in a reader's e-mail message.

New York Times, February 24: A subheading on Jan. 21 about remarks on Iran by Vice President Dick Cheney on an MSNBC program referred incorrectly to that country's nuclear program. As the article said, there is a widespread belief that the program is intended to build a nuclear arsenal. There is no evidence that Iran currently has nuclear weapons. A reader e-mailed The Times this week about the error and said he had sent an earlier message, which apparently went astray.

New York Times, February 26: An article in Business Day on Jan. 24 about the marketing effort needed if Lance Armstrong challenged the time record for a one-hour ride on a velodrome misspelled the given name of the cyclist who set the record on a traditional track bike in 1972. He is Eddy Merckx, not Eddie. A reader reported the error in late January, but this correction was misplaced at The Times.

[It's admirable for the Times to try to explain why tardy corrections get lost in the shuffle, but these explanations obscure rather than explain. Gelf would like to see some time: "A reader reported the error in late January, but the reporter unconsciously suppressed memory of the email. The anal reader then emailed our ombudsman, who got on our case."]

Sexy Rail Projects

Cohasset (Mass.) Mariner, February 25: A page 3 story about Greenbush work in Cohasset that appeared in last week's Mariner should have said: The town parking lot is the "knottiest problem we've come across," said Tom Gruber. He explained the mitigation agreement calls for 182 parking spaces and plans currently show 149. The story incorrectly stated "The town parking lot is the 'naughtiest problem we've come across [emphasis added].' " The Mariner regrets the error.

Those Really Are Tears of Sadness

New York Times, February 24: The caption on Feb. 14 for a picture by Reuters with the continuation of an article about the Iraqi elections misstated the reason Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, a Shiite cleric, was weeping. He was participating in a mourning ritual as part of Ashura, a holy Shiite festival -- not reacting to results showing that his political alliance had won a slim majority of seats. A second caption for a Reuters photo misstated the reason a Shiite was shown flagellating himself in a Baghdad procession. He was taking part in the same mourning ritual, not celebrating the election outcome.


Washington City Paper, February 25: Yet in less than two years of circulation, the [Washington Post's] Sunday Source has produced a smashing how-to feature on filling out the Post's daily corrections box. Thus far, the Sunday Source has racked up 75 published corrections accounting for about 92 distinct errors.

[As the City Paper notes, many of these corrections concern the time and place of events in the Source's listings. So, as the piece is entitled, "Call Before You Come."]

Non-Correction Correction

Azizisbored.com, February 22: the HBO pilot is news to me! (It was actually a pitch for a new MTV network and it took about 2 days Big Jas time in actuality)

[Comedian Aziz Ansari appreciates the mention in a Wall Street Journal Online column, but apparently doesn't recognize the quotation attributed to him that "I was working to put together a pitch for a pilot for HBO."]

Non-Corrected Non-Correction Correction

Wall Street Journal, February 28: In a landmark deal that may well be the last stand for department-store retailing, No. 1 chain Federated Department Stores Inc. has agreed to buy longtime rival and No. 2 May Department Stores Co. for $11 billion, the two companies said Monday.

[Two weeks ago, Gelf reported on a claim by the New York Post that the Journal may have goofed in its articles previewing the deal. The Post wrote: "Was the Wall Street Journal snookered by a cagey investment banker when it reported a few weeks ago that Federated Department Stores 'is in preliminary talks' to buy rival May Department Stores? One source close to May says the Journal was, indeed, duped." Indeed, that source may have duped the Post.]

Full Disclosure

Wall Street Journal Online, February 25: NPD Group says it receives point-of-sale data directly for about 60% of U.S. sales of small appliances, such as waffle irons. This article put the number at 30%, based on incorrect information provided by the company.

[This one was made by yours truly. Oops.]

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Article by Carl Bialik

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