2017 Is Ending … Media Mistakes, Corrections and Apologies Just Go Marching On

IT’S THAT TIME AGAIN. It’s The Media Beat‘s annual celebration of entertaining media errors (and efforts to put things right) that have caught my eye since our last unashamedly un-collegial exercise in journalistic schadenfreude, lo, these full twelve months ago.

I’m going to continue my tradition – in keeping with this festive time of year – of dealing largely with light-hearted examples of the genre. That’s despite the mood of media criticism having changed, changed utterly this year. Light-heartedness is not as easy as it was, now that the nation’s Chief Executive tries to stigmatize anything that discomforts him as “Fake News” … and that some form or other of ‘truthiness’, or even (so help me) ‘alternative facts‘, will often prevail against demonstrable truth.

Let’s not forget that while we may have fun at journalism’s expense for a little while … at the same time journalistic accuracy remains a matter of complete seriousness professionally. During this past year, after all, ABC News’ top investigative reporter Brian Ross was suspended for overstating Trumpian involvement in an outreach to Russia … three CNN journalists resigned after wrongly characterizing a Russia connection …. and the nation’s Chief Executive demanded the firing of a Washington Post reporter who labeled erroneously a photo of January's (NOT unprecedentedly huge) Inauguration audience.

Moving on now, lightheartedly …

But not so fast! Just before I get down to our unserious business of specific, publicly-circulated bloopers, I have to reflect on something observable only somewhere in-house … at the offices of my hometown newspaper, in fact. That would be The New York Times, which I maintain, unprovably of course, to be the world’s best paper – and I still maintain this notion, ever since a silly and stubborn dinner-table argument I had with George Soros. (He supported the Financial Times, I must report in the public interest.)

You’ll probably recall the Times’ distressing efforts this last July at cost-saving, by hollowing-out the benches of excellent copy-editors for which the ‘Old Gray Lady’ has long been noted. The threat to their ranks (which ended up being reduced from 109 to about 50) prompted them to loudly remind colleagues and readers of their value. One placard they carried, as they protested outside the Times building, proclaimed sharply:

Without us, it’s the New Yrok Times

But the in-house notice that I saw could be read ambiguously – it’s possibly just another reminder of every copy-editor’s usefulness … or it’s possibly an appeal to writers for extra vigilance in the absence of a copy-editor. The notice said:

THE HUMBLE TYPO serves to represent – you might say it typifies – our annual pursuit. While big, egregious errors are undeniably the very opposite of what we want in journalism, there is inevitably meanwhile a constant stream of evidently unstoppable little mistakes (and typos lead that flow ) – which cause great confusion sometimes, but usually just harmless amusement. And without them where would our year-end festival be?

Take for example this advertisement in a Wisconsin local newspaper – for an Eagle River, WI toy-store called Grandma’s Toy Box:

CORRECTION: Last week’s ad should have read: “See our huge selection of fun TOYS!” – not ‘Boys’. (Sorry for the disappointment!) GRANDMA’s TOY BOX, across from the Vilas Movie Theater “Remember: You can drive further … but you can’t find a butter store!”

Such Truth-in-Advertising is a laudable guiding principle - it’s just a pity about that extra typo. They should have done better, perhaps?

SO MANY PUBLISHED slips – which themselves slip by whole benches of alert copy-editors – we know to be simply slips of the finger, on a keyboard. But many others are verbal slips … and of the ear, more than the tongue. Going back to the days of reporters phoning their stories in to a news-desk, I can like all reporters active in that long-ago era recall some historic howlers. But here’s a more recent instance, from “US” magazine:

CORRECTION: Due to a transcription error, Danielle Brisebois was misrepresented. Discussing the demands of the acting profession, Brisebois was misquoted as saying: “You have to know how to run, you have have to be in shape, you have know how to do sex acts.” She actually said: “You have to know how to do circus acts”. ‘US’ regrets the error.

In a similar vein, perhaps – but now we’ll sense mis-filing rather than mis-hearing – there came this, from a local newspaper in South Carolina (which I won’t identify more precisely for reasons of discretion):

CORRECTION: Due to incorrect information, from the Clerk of Courts Office, Diana K, 38 [and again I’m being discreet about the lady’s full name] was incorrectly listed in Wednesday’s paper as being fined for prostitution. The charge should have been ‘failure to stop at a railroad crossing’. We apologize for the error.

THIS BEDEVILING CAPACITY that journalistic slips possess for turning something small into something bigger and more troublesome was highlighted back where I started – at the New York Times in November. It was intended, it seems, as an indicator of modern industrialized societies’ increasingly fluid gender-definitions. But it ended up being a much over-exaggerated indicator ….

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article mis-stated the estimated percentage of people in Germany who are inter-sexual. It is 0.2 percent, putting the number of German inter-sexuals at about 160,000. It is not two percent.

That earlier, mistaken percentage would have meant Germany has over a million-and-a-half intersexual people. We live in changing times … but not that magnitude or rate of change.

I’ll end with a correction that borders on a critique of reporters’ professionalism, even though I want to stay away from anything too weighty by way of judgement. It represents the kind of sub-optimal work that any one of us could have been responsible for.

It occurred once in the Spokesman-Review of Spokane, Washington – and there’s no accompanying apology, interestingly. But then, to whom might the apology have been directed?

CORRECTION: An April 5th story stated that Mary Fraijo did not return a reporter’s calls seeking comment. Ms Fraijo died last December.

To borrow from Porky Pig of the Warner Bros pantheon, and I hope accurately ... for the year 2017, "th-th-th ... that's all, folks!"

[As often before, I’m indebted to the Poynter Institute’s Alexios Mantzarlis for his constant watch over this territory of errors – while I also acknowledge that his fact-checking responsibilities have gotten all that weightier … and now allow little that’s lighthearted in this, our grim ‘post-truth’ era.]

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