Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

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February 13, 2005

Our Favorite Corrections, 1/29-2/13

The perils of anecdotal journalism, a forged evite, 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.

Anecdotal Journalism

Oregonian, Feb. 6: A Page One story on Wednesday amounted to a journalistic meltdown. Readers deserve an explanation for how it occurred and an apology. The lead story on the front page described how Oregonians in their 20s are twice as likely as other adults to go without health insurance. The trend is real. But the human examples and some of the supporting facts used in the story are untrue or flawed. [etc.]

[The major errors here came from a person used to exemplify the supposed trend. The story was also corrected extensively here, though I can't find the original article online. Newspapers may be somewhat defenseless when it comes to an outright hoax—consider another recent example, via BoingBoing—though more energetic fact-checking would have helped. More importantly, this meltdown needn't have happened if newspapers didn't feel the need to cook up examples demonstrating trends. Notice that in this case, the source was friend of a newsroom staffer. Finding examples that way is common, but pretty phony; it doesn't exactly broaden the perspective of the newspaper.]

No One Leaves Alone

Washington Post, Feb. 8: A Feb. 5 Names & Faces item on an Evite e-mail invitation to Michael Saylor's birthday party was based on a copy of the invitation that had been partially forged before it was sent to The Post. The original Evite from MicroStrategy's chief executive said the party will be "exotic, mysterious and ebullient," but it did not say "erotic." It said "Think 'Alias' (the TV show), but sexier" but did not include "much sexier," as was reported. The original also specified "cocktail dresses" but did not say "the shorter the better." And, the original did not end with—or even contain—the words "no one leaves alone." Nor was there anything in the original invitation unfit for a family newspaper. The birthday celebration involved dinner and dancing at the Ortanique restaurant for about 200 guests.

[This doozy, flagged by Slate, reflects the perils of trusting electronic documents. Saylor could have cleared this up in advance if he'd responded to the Post's e-mails. Bonus: Check out this MicroStrategy 2000 press release on a partnership it struck with Evite Inc. Double bonus: An Evite tip. Don't forward an Evite email to someone else; copy and paste the text of the message, instead. Unless you want to allow someone else to reply for you.]

Strangers, Beware

Baltimore Sun, 2/13: A quotation from the play Death of A Salesman that appeared in yesterday's editions of The Sun accompanying an article on the death of Arthur Miller omitted the word "fair." The quotation should have read, "Never fight fair with a stranger, boy. You'll never get out of the jungle that way." The Sun regrets the error.

[A Google search finds that this same error propagated into many newspapers' Miller obits. The original quote is a whole lot better, of course.]

Religious Heterogeneity

Chicago Tribune, 2/8: An obituary Friday improperly implied that Protestants are not Christians when it said that Rabbi Irving Rosenbaum produced a film and accompanying book to help educate Christians and Protestants.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 2/10: Some Christians do not recognize Lent. An article in Wednesday's Metro section may have implied that all Christians observe this period before Easter.

[Ah, Christians. So many different religious practices and beliefs; it's complicated. Apparently these were the offending words: "Today St. Louis Christians will attend Ash Wednesday services, and many will be deciding what to give up for Lent, the 40 days (not including Sundays) between Ash Wednesday and Easter, which this year falls on March 27th. Christians believe Lent is a time for fasting, penitence and prayer in the weeks leading up to Easter."]

A Correction, Which Is a Correction

Slate, 2/11: A "Bushism of the Day" item posted on Feb. 10 reported that President Bush said on Sept. 23, 2004, "Listen, the other day I was asked about the National Intelligence Estimate, which is a National Intelligence Estimate." Though this is the version reported in several transcripts, an audiotape of the speech makes clear that Bush's more coherent actual words were, "Listen, the other day I was asked about the NIE, which is a National Intelligence Estimate."

[It's a cautionary tale of the perils of relying on transcription services for quotes. One source of this apparently erroneous quote: the White House itself.]

Never Forget

Washington Post, Jan. 29: A Jan. 28 article about ceremonies marking the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazis' Auschwitz death camps incorrectly said that there were 6 million victims of the Holocaust, most of them Jews. Historians generally put the Jewish death toll in the Holocaust at 6 million, but the Nazis and their collaborators also murdered an estimated 5 million other Europeans, including Poles, political opponents and members of the Roma minority, historical studies show.

San Francisco Chronicle, Jan. 28: A reference in a story Thursday to the Nazi killings of 70,000 Poles, 21,000 Gypsies and tens of thousands of political and religious dissidents, homosexuals and disabled people during World War II should have said that they lost their lives in the Auschwitz concentration camp.

[While papers had some trouble getting their Holocaust numbers straight in articles about an Auschwitz commemoration ceremony, the Washington Post deftly broke down Dick Cheney's fashion statement—olive drab parka—at the event.]

Non-Correction I

New York Post, 2/8: 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.

[The Journal hasn't run a correction. Here's its original story, and one in which, as the Post says, "the Journal has retreated a bit on the story by saying that price is the sticking point. No kiddin'!"]

Non-Correction II

White House, 2/9: Today's Washington Post story (p A1), headlined "Medicare Drug Benefit May Cost $1.2 Trillion," is simply wrong. The article says "the White House released budget figures yesterday indicating that the new Medicare prescription drug benefit will cost more than $1.2 trillion in the coming decade, a much higher price tag than President Bush suggested when he narrowly won passage of the law in late 2003." This statement in the first paragraph of the story is flat wrong. The White House is seeking a correction from The Washington Post.

[This Medicare drug-benefit cost was the source of some confusion; other publications used the White House's preferred figure of $720 billion. The Post didn't back down; its article the next day referred to the White House "disputing news reports." The Post's ombudsman considered the issue in his Sunday column, but his take was rather nuanced.]

Simon Says, You're Wrong

Washington Post, 1/31: A Jan. 30 article inadvertently dropped the first name of Democratic National Committee chairmanship candidate Simon Rosenberg.

New York Times, 2/3: A front-page article yesterday about the increasing likelihood that Howard Dean will be elected chairman of the Democratic National Committee referred incorrectly in some copies to the organization headed by Simon Rosenberg, one of his opponents. It is the New Democrat Network. (The Democratic Leadership Council, which also pushes the party toward centrist policies, is a different organization.)

[Rosenberg set the papers straight, but didn't get the gig.]

Proud Day for Journalism

New York Times, Feb. 6: At the request of federal prosecutors, a judge dismissed criminal charges in October against four men involved in operating gas stations on Long Island, charges that were substantially overstated in an article in the Long Island section last Sunday. The article, about the reaction among local Turks to raids by federal agents on Turkish-owned gas stations, failed to report that the charges against the men had been dismissed. [etc.]

[This remarkable correction, flagged by a Romenesko reader, took 959 words to correct a 2,206-word piece. As the Romenesko reader noted, "No wonder nobody trusts us any more."]

He's a Bi Sponge

Los Angeles Times, Feb. 10: An editorial Saturday about children's literature and cartoons erroneously stated that James Dobson of Focus on the Family declared that SpongeBob SquarePants is a homosexual sponge. Instead, in a speech last month, Dobson criticized as pro-homosexual a tolerance video featuring SpongeBob, Big Bird and others.

[For more background on this bizarre correction, see Patterico's entry on it.]

Watt'd He Say?

Washington Post, Feb. 8: A Feb. 6 article quoted James G. Watt, interior secretary under President Ronald Reagan, as telling Congress in 1981: "After the last tree is felled, Christ will come back." Although that statement has been widely attributed to Watt, there is no historical record that he made it.

[This quote has appeared elsewhere recently, including in a Bill Moyers column in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. In response Watt wrote a corrective letter to the paper. Editor & Publisher ran a column about the tempest. All this has the effect of obscuring the point, which is Reagan's abysmal environmental record. Of course, it's harder to tell that story using facts than with a quote that may be apocryphal.]

Pop, Goes the News

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 2/8: A story published in the Feb. 6, 2005 news cycle headlined "Philadelphia schools ban soda pop sales," was a republication of a 2004 wire service story about that action by the Philadelphia board in that year, not 2005. The school board's policy has been in effect since September of 2004.

[Here's the initial AP story, very dated.]

Now That's a Spicy Relleno Puff

San Francisco Chronicle, Feb. 2: The following recipe, which appeared in the Jan. 26 South to North column, called for the wrong size pan. It should be baked in a 9-inch square pan or in 6 individual ramekins. It will puff up most in the ramekins. If you use the ramekins, you might consider substituting diced canned chiles for the whole ones; it will be easier to eat.

But 2006 Is Really the Last Time

Baltimore Sun, Feb. 2: A column in yesterday's Today section implied that the National Football League would never return the Super Bowl to Detroit. The football championship is scheduled to return to the city next year.

[The columnist, Susan Reimer, flagellated herself in a follow-up column the next day, to her credit. But how could this mistake have escaped notice of editors and the copy desk? Maybe some have been to Detroit and were exercising wishful thinking.]

Vapor Quote

Wired, Jan. 10: The story initially quoted someone identifying themselves as Sean Pelletier, who until recently was an Alienware product manager.

[Very weird. This site, which mirrored the Wired article, has the original quote: Sean Pelletier said, "They showcased at E3 this year that was supposed to crush Nvidia's SLI.... What a joke! It never showed up because it never worked!" Unclear if Pelletier—who was initially identified in the article only as a reader, not as an interested party—lost his job before or after being quoted, nor whether he really said the quote, or someone else did. The correction even leaves unclear whether he was erroneously quoted, but then fired anyway for the quote.]

Post's Ex-Consultant Bashes Post Competitor in Post

Washington Post, Feb. 9: A Feb. 1 Business article about the Washington Examiner quoted media consultant Barbara G. Cohen, who questioned the Examiner's plan for free distribution. The story should have noted that Cohen earned a consulting fee in 2003 from The Washington Post, which competes with the Examiner, for an analysis she did on classified advertising.

[Here's the tainted quote: "Most people don't like free, unsolicited things brought to their home," said Barbara G. Cohen, president of Kannon Consulting Inc., a Chicago media consultancy. "Many view it as waste. They have to recycle it. They didn't ask for it anyway. Many people find it unattractive unless it meets their need."]

Headless Body Found in Reckless Obituary

Los Angeles Times, Feb. 3: The obituary of Judge Raymond Choate in Wednesday's California section said that the body of Donald "Shorty" Shea, who was murdered by Charles Manson follower Bruce Davis (over whose trial Choate presided), was never found and that Shea was decapitated. In the early 1980s, another of the Manson family defendants, Steve Grogan, led sheriff's homicide investigators to the body, which had not been decapitated.

Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik is a co-founder, contributing editor, and Varsity Letters editor of Gelf. Bialik currently writes the Numbers Guy column for the Wall Street Journal and plays no role in Gelf's day-to-day editorial decisions.







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Comments

- Oops
- posted on Feb 16, 05
alek

Stumbled upon your site and this page (gosh, CarlB gets around, doesn't he) and very nice writeup above. While I think it's good to have media watchdogs, way too many times it becomes super-duper political ... when in actual fact, it should be "just the facts"

Good writing above - the "ooops, Detroit IS going to host the Super Bowl again" ... kudo's to Susan who wrote a pretty funny column about it - thanx for the link. While ideally the MSM should do better fact checking, to err is human - MSM would have a LOT more credibility in my book if they'd admit that.


Article by Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik is a co-founder, contributing editor, and Varsity Letters editor of Gelf. Bialik currently writes the Numbers Guy column for the Wall Street Journal and plays no role in Gelf's day-to-day editorial decisions.

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