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Peeking Inside the Department of 'Corections'

By Ben L. Kaufman · October 11th, 2010 · On Second Thought

My favorite reading includes corrections. I call it “reading” because broadcasters rarely admit error.

Everyone errs. Some admit it and correct their errors. Graphs, maps and percentages figure prominently in corrections, but names of people and places most often seem to trip us up. Get a name wrong, and it becomes journalism history if not local legend. Unless it’s corrected, others reporters may rely on that spelling and get into all kinds of trouble.

I tell reporting students that spelling can be a trap. Is it John, Jon or Jean? Ed or Edd? Karl or Carl? It wasn’t until we moved south to Cincinnati that I learned my three-letter first name had three syllables: “Bay-yuh-en.”

Even when people spell their names, some letters sound alike. Was that “es” as in sugar or “ef” as in fox? B/baker or D/dog? M/mother or N/Nan? I phoned a story to a major national paper about a case before federal Judge S. Arthur Spiegel, and it came out in print F. Arthur Spiegel. When I asked for a correction, an editor said they wouldn’t bother unless the judge asked. All of this is too familiar to someone whose minimalist Kaufman too often gets an extra F and/or N.

One year, in a story about people who had a shitty Christmas, we misspelled Tucker in bold, black capital letters at the top of the Enquirer local page. I caught it on page proof late in the press run but before the final edition was printed. It was the only time I’ve stopped the presses. The printing foreman took out his pocket knife, climbed into the press and mutilated the offending F so that it looked like a broken T.

The gods were good. The woman about whom we wrote apparently never saw her misspelled family name. No one else complained.

Living and working in Minnesota, I learned to ask whether it’s Nelson or Nelsen, Johnsson or Johnson, Jonson or Johnson. When I encounter a classically Scandinavian name, I always ask, “Is that ‘son’ or ‘sen’?” That appears to be a surprising question down here on the Ohio River. When they tell me whether it’s with an O or an E, I follow up with “one ‘es’ or two?” That’s when I get the “where in the Hell are you from?” “Mini-sohta” usually satisfies their curiosity. Apparently too many years, languages and countries have corrupted my telltale Prairie Home Companion linguistic purity. But if I don’t ask, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a Scottish, English or Swedish “Anderson.” Those Viking raiders left more than a tendency to red hair.

Increasingly, unfamiliar immigrant and ethnic names demand greater care as variety and creativity increase. But even the best efforts can go wrong.

I interviewed a grieving father about the loss of two children in an apartment fire. I printed the children’s names in BLOCK CAPITAL letters in my notebook and showed them to him. He said OK. Later, an Enquirer police reporter got different spellings for all three youngsters from Children’s Hospital, where the two fire victims and a surviving child were taken. Editors went with the hospital spelling, saying, in effect, if they’re wrong we have someone “official” to blame.

Then there are dates. Recently, The New York Times had two weird errors in one story about a couple veterans of the D-Day landing. The Times said D-Day was 65 years ago. Wrong. It was 66 years ago. The headline called both men glider pilots. Wrong. One said the other might have been his pilot. Both mistakes were corrected online.

A memorable calendar gaffe occurred when I reported that someone was charged with a June 31 killing. A caller suggested this would be an easy acquittal; there could have been no homicide because there is no June 31.

Another inexplicable mistake was my story about the Central Bridge over the Ohio. A reader called me at home and asked for “that dumb asshole Kaufman.” I assured him he had the right person, and when he asked where the Central Bridge ran, I said Cincinnati to Newport. “Right, so why did you write in today’s paper that it ran between Cincinnati and Covington?” No one in the newsroom caught my error.

Esoteric errors also pop up. A caller ripped me a new one because I’d written about his church and endowed him with the traditional title for Christian clergy, Rev. He was sure I’d set out to embarrass him. By the time he hung up, I still didn’t know what infuriated him. I called one of his fellow pastors with whom I had a good working relationship. He laughed about his colleague’s “most unChristian” language and explained that their branch of Protestantism shuns Reverend and similar titles as unbiblical. He added that his brother pastor had blown a chance to educate a reporter, something he never failed to do.

Then there are other errors.

I was night editor of a tabloid-size English-language daily in Italy, and one of my tasks was to replace “fly to Tel Aviv” ads with “fly to Amman” or “fly to Cairo” in later editions. I forgot one night, and our representatives in those cities were called by Jordanian and Egyptian customs: Cut out the offending ads for Israel or trash every copy. They scissored. I heard about that.

Inadvertent goofs are the stuff of legend. Columbia Journalism Review, Regret the Error and others share headlines that can be read more than one way. The New Yorker long has filled out short columns with bits of baffling stories from newspapers.

I have a board full of them in my den. Most are sexual or scatalogical. One of my favorites, which vanished after the Enquirer first edition, was on the “jump,” the continuation of a cover story on an inside page. It used the subject’s last name but what followed caused the problem: “HEAD: You get more than you give.” I didn’t write that one.

My favorite personal goof recalls George Bernard Shaw’s famous saying, “England and America are two countries separated by a common language.” I was editing a paper in Central Africa and we used a UPI story about Albert Schweitzer working in his African hospital on his birthday. In blissful ignorance, I sent through the six-column page 1 headline, “Schweitzer, 89, still on the job.”

For Brits and others in the Commonwealth, “on the job” refers to the male partner in heterosexual missionary position intercourse. I didn’t know that. It wasn’t part of my cultural anthropology course at London University. None of our subeditors (Brits, Australians, Rhodesians, South Africans, Scots) alerted me. Later, over Lion lagers, they explained the conspiracy of silence: They’d never see that expression in a headline again, and it could always be blamed on “the Yank.” They wouldn’t, and it was. Ever the gentleman, Schweitzer didn’t ask for a correction.

Then there are deliberate errors. When French Algerian settlers tried to assassinate DeGaul, “assassinate” wouldn’t fit our tabloid page 1 so I dropped an S. The headline read “assasinate.” No one noticed or, if they did, they didn’t say anything.

Curmudgeon Notes

• One of the great federal trial and appellate judges, Michigan’s Damon Keith, put it simply: Democracy dies behind closed doors. No finer undertaker-in-chief can be found than Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory in his trademark black suit. His latest effort was a series of private meetings with council members to allocate the estimated $20 million Cincinnati hopes to get from the forthcoming downtown casino. The Enquirer sued Mallory and City Council, saying those small, private sessions violated Ohio Open Meetings law.

“Council acted in a deliberate and despicable fashion geared to freeze the public out of the deliberations over the allocation of public funds,” Enquirer attorney Jack Greiner wrote in the suit in Hamilton County Common Pleas Court.” The paper continued: “Mallory, the suit alleges, held ‘round robin’ meetings with small groups of council members Sept. 29 to discuss how the casino money — which won't be collected until 2013 — will be spent. That was done, the suit alleges, because if Mallory held those meetings with a majority of council at the same time it would have been a public meeting and should have been held in public. A 1995 Ohio Supreme Court decision ruled that such ‘round robin’ meetings are illegal.”

The Enquirer suit added: “As a result of the mayor's shuttle diplomacy, council voted on a measure to allocate anticipated casino revenues with no public discussion. ... To better ensure secrecy, the matter was not even on the (council) agenda for that day.”

The paper said its suit “asks that the action be invalidated because council's vote on how to divvy up the anticipated money was done without public input and the details were plotted during illegal meetings. It also seeks to permanently prevent the mayor and council from violating Ohio's Open Meeting laws again.”

• Granted, Cincinnati’s Henry Heimlich was not part of a federal agency when he went abroad to attack HIV by infecting patients with malaria. His much-condemned theory is that high malarial fevers will kill HIV. My question is this: Will Heimlich draw new media attention since the revelation of an official U.S. experiment that infected hundreds of Guatamalan inmates and mental patients to test the power of then-new penicillin on venereal disease? The Enquirer probed the dubious ethics and science of Heimlich’s malariotherapy in the early 1990s, but Heimlich and his blogger son, Phil, indicate the work continues through the Deaconess-related Heimlich Institute.

• If you want a dramatic example of the difference between BBC reporters and deferential American broadcasters, go to bbc.co.uk/programmes and listen to The Interview on Oct. 2. Owen Bennett Jones quizzes Terry Jones, the Florida pastor who ignited a worldwide furor with his threat to burn a copy of the Qur’an. Bennett Jones is unrelenting, and Jones is unrepentant.

• Nobel laureate and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman makes an interesting point about the ways Fox News owner Rupert Murdoch pursues his goals: “As Politico recently pointed out, every major contender for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination who isn’t currently holding office and isn’t named Mitt Romney is now a paid contributor to Fox News. Now, media moguls have often promoted the careers and campaigns of politicians they believe will serve their interests. But directly cutting checks to political favorites takes it to a whole new level of blatancy.

“Arguably, this shouldn’t be surprising. Modern American conservatism is, in large part, a movement shaped by billionaires and their bank accounts, and assured paychecks for the ideologically loyal are an important part of the system. Scientists willing to deny the existence of man-made climate change, economists willing to declare that tax cuts for the rich are essential to growth, strategic thinkers willing to provide rationales for wars of choice, lawyers willing to provide defenses of torture, all can count on support from a network of organizations that may seem independent on the surface but are largely financed by a handful of ultrawealthy families.”

• Krugman’s op-ed colleague Bob Herbert reminds us of Republican John Boehner’s malleable ethics, something ignored by the embarrassingly worshipful profile in a recent Sunday Enquirer. It was so bad, so Old Enquirer, that I looked for the Advertorial label at the top of the Forum page. It was pure hagiography.

Herbert wrote: “I’ve always thought of Mr. Boehner as one of the especially sleazy figures in a capital seething with sleaze. I remember writing about that day back in the mid-’90s when this slick, chain-smoking, quintessential influence-peddler decided to play Santa Claus by handing out checks from tobacco lobbyists to fellow Congressional sleazes right on the floor of the House. It was incredible, even to some Republicans. The House was in session, and here was a congressman actually distributing money on the floor. Other, more serious, representatives were engaged in debates that day on such matters as financing for foreign operations and a proposed amendment to the Constitution to outlaw desecration of the flag. Mr. Boehner was busy desecrating the House itself by doing the bidding of big tobacco. Embarrassed members of the G.O.P. tried to hush up the matter, but I got a tip and called Mr. Boehner’s office. His chief of staff, Barry Jackson, was hardly contrite. ‘They were contributions from tobacco PACs,’ he said. When I asked why the congressman would hand the money out on the floor of the House, Mr. Jackson’s answer seemed an echo of Willie Sutton’s observation about banks. ‘The floor,’ he said, ‘is where the members meet with each other.’”

• I don’t get up early enough to see dawn TV, so I’m grateful to huffingtonpost.com: “Fox News reported that Los Angeles is going to spend $1 billion on jetpacks that can fly a person up to 63 miles per hour and soar to heights of 8,000 feet. The hosts of Fox and Friends, the network's morning show ... retracted the report within an hour. They initially said that Los Angeles (Police Department) was ordering 10,000 jetpacks at a cost of $100,000 each. Gawker first noted that it probably came from a story in the Weekly World News. For those who haven't noticed the publication in supermarket checkout lines, their logo features Bat Boy and they've broken such exclusives as ‘Dick Cheney Is a Robot,’ ‘Satan Captured by GIs in Iraq’ and ‘Hillary Clinton Adopts Alien Baby.’ At least Fox didn’t blame it on Nancy Pelosi.”

• Where are the local reporters probing moneylenders who signed foreclosure documents they didn’t read and may have forged signatures to speed court action? Where are interviews with elected judges who went along with the fraud on the courts? Those documents were supposed to be accurate and true when they were filed with the courts. Knowing the documents were not accurate or true could be criminal, but who’s asking?

Stupid, ignorant or poor people who took out lousy loans have been vilified. Moneylenders and compliant judges, honest or otherwise, remain heroes. But who’s asking. Is it just the old Cincinnati habit of being deferential in the face of their betters?

• Lawyer and WLW radio host Eric Deters is suing blogger Jim Schifrin, saying Schifrin’s Whistleblower web site defamed him. Too bad. I would have thought them natural allies.

• Cincinnatians might recall Randy Michaels' redefinition of good taste on WLW radio after he and others bought it in the 1980s. In a column on the station, The Enquirer’s John Kiesewetter recalled how “Michaels fired DJ Jim LaBarbara, cut back on music and introduced the talk-show format. He said he was ‘teaching the grand old lady of radio how to dance’.” One night, he hosted a show “devoted to this topic: ‘Who Would You Like To Kill? How Would You Do It? What Would You Do With The Body?’ Michaels also hired Cincinnati’s first radio psychic, Lynn Gladhill, to host overnights. She was fired in 1984, after seven months, for drinking wine and uttering obscenities on the air. She told listeners she ‘was doing the show only in her pantyhose’.”

It appears Michaels has brought some of that same sensitivity to the similarly venerable (Chicago) Tribune Company, where he is now CEO. The New York Times’ David Carr put it this way recently: “Michaels, a former radio executive and disc jockey, had been handpicked by Sam Zell, a billionaire who was the new controlling shareholder, to run much of the media company’s vast collection of properties, including The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times, WGN America and the Chicago Cubs.” There was hope that Zell and Michaels would breathe innovation and reinvention into the conservative company. Instead, thousands lost their jobs in the subsequent bankruptcy.

Carr went on: “The new management did transform the work culture, however. ... Michaels’ and his executives’ use of sexual innuendo, poisonous workplace banter and profane invective shocked and offended people throughout the company. Tribune Tower, the architectural symbol of the staid company, came to resemble a frat house, complete with poker parties, jukeboxes and pervasive sex talk. The company said Mr. Michaels had the support of the board. ‘Randy is a tremendous motivator, very charismatic, but he is very nontraditional,’ said Frank Wood, a member of the Tribune board. ‘He has the kind of approach that motivates many people and offends others, but we think he’s done a great job’.”

The Union Leader, the only statewide daily in New Hampshire, accepted support from an international defense contractor and two other businesses to send the publisher and a photographer to Afghanistan to cover a local combat unit. A cynic might say this is just more blatant that laundering those funds through ads. Others would wonder if any stories about those companies can be trusted.

• An Enquirer obit for David Nelson, a federal appeals court judge in Cincinnati, reminded me not only of the many courtesies he showed me as a reporter but of the day he cited my work approvingly in a published decision. It’s still on the bulletin board in my den, with his signature.


CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: editor@citybeat.com

 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
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