Craig Silverman, editor of the website (now a book)Regret the Error, joins us every December to catalogue journalism’s most egregious blunders of the past twelve months, some accidental some not. Guess what one newspaper misspelled on its front page.
BOB GARFIELD: A couple of weeks ago on this show, Brooke misstated the name of a terminally ill man whose doctor-assisted suicide was aired on British television. His name was Craig Ewert, not Chris Ewert. We regret the error.
Of course [LAUGHS], it wasn't the first mistake we made this year at On the Media and, judging from the 2008 roundup of Regrettheerror.com, we had plenty of company. Craig Silverman is editor of the website and author of Regret the Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech. He joins us every year at this time to catalog journalism’s most egregious blunders of the previous 12 months, some accidental, some – not so much. Craig, welcome to the show. CRAIG SILVERMAN: Thank you. BOB GARFIELD: You begin this year with the trend of the year, so why don't we? CRAIG SILVERMAN: I called it Epic Organizational Failure. It’s very common to see a single journalist go rogue. They plagiarize, they fabricate. But in this case there were three examples of actual entire organizations that really completely fell off the wagon.
You have a website in Japan – it was the website of a daily newspaper there – that had to basically be shut down and restarted because they were all the time publishing completely scandalous false articles, usually about the sexual proclivities of Japanese people.
Then you have the Express Newspapers chain in England, who had to publish a series of major front page apologies because they had done some really inaccurate and damaging reporting about a British family.
And then the last one was stateside. You had a weekly paper in Texas called The Bulletin that was actually practicing plagiarism as pretty much a standard operating procedure, and that one was revealed by Jody Rosen at Slate. BOB GARFIELD: Now, that’s plagiarism on kind of institutional scale. There were still a couple of outbreaks of ad hoc plagiarism too, curiously from the same author, Rick Reilly, now of ESPN.com and ESPN Magazine, previously of Sports Illustrated. It happened to him not once, but twice, not as perpetrator but as victim. CRAIG SILVERMAN: Apparently you can understand now why he was hired by ESPN for such a huge amount of money because his work is so good that people can't keep their hands off of it. BOB GARFIELD: But the most bizarre aspect of this is not so much [LAUGHS] the plagiarism but the confession, which is just simply delicious. CRAIG SILVERMAN: That's right. I'm calling this the Accuracy Quote of the Year. One of the people who was guilty - his name is Dave Pratt - he’s better known as a radio host in Vancouver, but he was writing a column for a Vancouver newspaper. And so, when he was tracked down by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation to ask him why he had done this, he said, quote, “It was Saturday and I wanted to get out [?] before noon. BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Well, that’s the explanation. Sorry for robbing the bank, Your Honor, but I wanted money. CRAIG SILVERMAN: You've got to love the brutal honesty of it, I guess. [LAUGHS] BOB GARFIELD: Okay, but maybe that’s the Confession of the Year. It’s not the Correction of the Year. That you award to humorist Dave Barry. What was the error [LAUGHING] and what was the correction? CRAIG SILVERMAN: This correction has a few names that are extremely hard to pronounce. I'm going to take a shot at it now. But the background is, Dave Barry had written a column in The Miami Herald about the Olympics. He had an error in the column, and this is the correction that he published in the next day’s column.
“In yesterday’s column about badminton, I misspelled the name of Guatemalan player Kevin Cordon. I apologize. In my defense, I want to note that in the same column I correctly spelled Prapawadee Jaroenrattanatarak, Poompat Sapkulchananart and Porntip Buranapraseatsuk. So by the time I got to Kevin Cordon, my fingers were exhausted.” BOB GARFIELD: Okay, so that’s kind of a goofy correction. Some were serious indeed. And you award your Error of the Year to The L.A. Times for reporting it did on an attack a decade ago of rapper Tupac Shakur. The reporting suggested that Sean “Puffy” Combs was involved. CRAIG SILVERMAN: The story was published in March. It was a story that took about six months of reporting to produce, and it was written by a Pulitzer Prize winner, Chuck Philips. The story suggested, as you mentioned, that Sean Combs and some of his associates were the ones behind this attack. It suggested that he knew about it.
And the story relied on what were claimed to be FBI documents that were provided to the reporter by a man named James Sabatino, who was an inmate. And The Smoking Gun just dug into this, and they said, look, Sabatino is a well-known con artist, and they looked at the documents and they concluded very easily, it seemed, that they were all forged.
And so The Times, on March 27th, just the day after The Smoking Gun report, apologized. And then on April 7th, not too long after, they actually issued a formal retraction. BOB GARFIELD: What lessons do we learn from this incident? CRAIG SILVERMAN: You know, this is one thing journalists struggle with all the time - that we have to go into something and try to maintain our skepticism and try to be critical about the things that are being given to us, even if we really want them to be true or we know that they'll be a big story.
And it’s a very difficult thing for a journalist to do, to keep that distance, and in this case I think it was one of the reasons why the Times story ended up getting published and why they didn't see that these documents were so troublesome. BOB GARFIELD: So you look at corrections, you look at apologies, you look at errors, you look at ethical blunders, and you also look at typos, a couple of which caught your eye in 2008. Can you share them? CRAIG SILVERMAN: I think a lot of journalists would agree that the Typo of the Year is the kind of mistake that is really one of the most embarrassing possible, and I say that because back in the summer, a newspaper that is distributed in Vermont and New Hampshire actually managed to spell its own name wrong on the front page. BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Oops! CRAIG SILVERMAN: Yeah, so let's get their name out there. This is The Valley News, and they misspelled it by putting an extra “s” - BOB GARFIELD: Now, sometimes publications get kind of ensnared by their own stylebook. Tell me about the case of the sprinter. CRAIG SILVERMAN: This was a pretty remarkable one. There’s a website called OneNewsNow. It’s operated by the right-leaning American Family Association. And they have a standard practice in their stylebook that the word “homosexual” is inserted whenever there is the use of the word “gay.” And they've actually gone to the point where they have an automatic filter, so any story that comes in, and they use some of the wire services, automatically goes from “gay” to “homosexual.”
Now, this really served them poorly when a gentleman by the name of Tyson Gay was running at the Olympics track and field trials for the United States. The result was a headline that read, “Homosexual eases into 100 final at Olympic trials.” [BOB LAUGHS] It just got better from there.
The story reported that: “On Saturday, Homosexual misjudged the finish in his opening heat.” It also reported that, “Asked how he felt, Homosexual said, ‘A little fatigued.’” BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Oh, man, I just – I have nothing – I have nothing I can add to that. Thank you very, very much. CRAIG SILVERMAN: Thank you. BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Craig Silverman is author of Regret the Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech.