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Airing the Fourth Estate's Dirty Laundry

October 31, 1995|SCOTT HARRIS

Step right up, ladies and gentlemen. Step right up and feast your eyes on a spectacle seldom seen in the annals of American journalism! It's Halloween and the Harris House of Horrors has for you a shocking array of editorial errata!

Yes, some of the weirdest "Corrections," "Retractions" and "For the Records," ever seen are collected within this column. Warning: This freak show of the Fourth Estate, this gallery of garish gaffes, this portfolio of feckless faux pas , is not for the weak of stomach.

To quote Frank Sinatra: "Mistakes, I've made a few. But then again, too few to mention." That's his way, not mine. Why, just the other day I filed a column noting that an estimated 400,000 black men had gathered between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, when in fact it happened between the Washington Monument and the Capitol Building. (Did the editors save me from myself? Noooo.)

What is so strange about the correction you just read? It's just that nobody, not a soul, called the error to my attention. Nobody solicited the correction--and yet I have owned up to the error! This may not be unprecedented, but it is, I assure you, not standard operating procedure among journalists and commentators.

Here's another example. Not one of you eagle-eyed readers of the Valley Edition called to complain about the error in the "News Challenge" quiz published on Oct. 7. Or perhaps you really think Gov. Pete Wilson was indeed a "Simpson juror who said about the case, 'It was garbage in, garbage out. . . .' "

Had Gov. Wilson actually served on the Simpson jury, he'd at least have had an alibi for the failure of his presidential campaign. (Confusion may have stemmed from the fact the Wilson campaign, not unlike a juror, was collecting $5 per day.)

Step inside. Don't be scared. Some corrections, of course, are not fit to reprint. Like Halloween itself, the Harris House of Horrors is scary but fun. Here we have that famous photo of President Truman gleefully holding aloft a front page banner shouting "Dewey Defeats Truman."

Yes, a newspaper's misery is often a source of general mirth. The New Yorker, that august, snooty magazine, often likes to point this out, often with a pithy comment at the end:

Ensemble Theatre Project presents John Ford Noonan's "A Coupla White Chicks Sitting Around Talking" through May at the Old Alechama Theatre. . . For reservations and ticket information call (805) 962-6252. (DO NOT USE UNLESS GOOD PHONE NUMBER CAN BE FOUND AND SPELLING OF PLAY AND THEATER VERIFIED.)

--Los Angeles Times


Too late.

Well, har de har har.

It is the rare mistake that attracts wide public notice. Most are faxed from newsroom to newsroom or appear in journalism reviews. (We are indebted to Steve Harvey, author of "Only In L.A.," for sharing his research, if not his errors.)

One mistake that did achieve a certain public acclaim appeared last year in the Northwest Herald of Crystal Lake, Ill. The Correction of the Year for 1994 concerned a headline that ran above a story about the controversy over the Smithsonian Institution's exhibit of the Enola Gay, the famed B-29 Superfortress that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945:

Atomic Bombers Criticize

Enola Homosexual Exhibit


How do such things happen? A Herald copy editor realized that the newspaper's style guidelines prefers "homosexual" to "gay." Besides, the headline fit the column better.

"Due to an editing error" or "due to a production error" has become an increasingly common phrase in editorial corrections, partly because it's in a newspaper's interest to protect a reporter's credibility, and partly because it's the nature of reporters to point fingers and browbeat editors. It's our job.

By and large, these are honest mistakes. We don't make this stuff up. Honest. People tell us stories and it's our job to put them in the paper. Alas, sometimes reporters are a bit too trusting.

I was working in San Diego when the rival San Diego Tribune ran a real tearjerker. The next day, it ran this dazzling retraction:

In a story Saturday, The Tribune incorrectly reported that a guide dog owned by a blind 7-year-old boy was missing.

The boy, Robert Maurice, son of Lila Maurice of Ramona, is not blind, and the dog, which does not belong to the boy and is not a guide dog, has been found.

The story was based on a police report and from information provided by a relative.

The Tribune regrets the errors.


Whew. The Providence Journal-Bulletin once corrected a remarkable Mother's Day story about a 106-year-old woman who gave birth to her last child at the age 62. Turned out the woman was 82 and gave birth to her last child at age 44. One of the woman's daughters was the source. "She exaggerated a bit," another daughter said of her "well-intentioned" sister.

Naturally our tour now leads to the Hall of "Say What?"

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