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Beijing Newspaper Retreats, Apologizes for Capitol Gaffe

Media: After originally refusing, it retracts its report that U.S. Congress threatened to leave its digs unless a modern replacement was built.

June 13, 2002|HENRY CHU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BEIJING — After initially refusing to run a retraction, this city's most popular newspaper has apologized to readers for an erroneous report that U.S. lawmakers were threatening to pull out of Washington unless a fancy new Capitol was built.

The state-run Beijing Evening News admitted in its Tuesday edition that it had been snookered by a story published by the Onion, the American publication known for its spoofs of current events. The Onion reported last month that members of Congress were pressing for construction of a brand-new Capitol, complete with a retractable dome and luxury boxes, in order "to stay competitive."

Last week, the Beijing Evening News rehashed the item as a real news story, without citing its source.

But after "our reporter in Washington checked out [the story], he discovered that some of its contents were identical to the Onion's joke article," the Beijing tabloid said Tuesday.

It added that the quotes in the story were fake, such as an alleged remark by Speaker of the House Dennis J. Hastert (R-Ill.) that the Capitol was past its prime.

"The U.S. Capitol has 200 years of history and is a precious part of America's cultural heritage," the Evening News quoted unnamed congressional staffers as saying this week. "It's impossible that it should be torn down on a whim."

Besides acknowledging its own lapse in judgment, however, the paper also criticized the Onion, apparently still not fully aware of the publication's mission as a purveyor of satire and laughs.

"Some small American newspapers frequently fabricate offbeat news to trick people into noticing them, with the aim of making money," the paper said. "This is what the Onion does."

It cited a recent Onion article about the U.S. government issuing life jackets to all Americans for some unexplained reason. "According to congressional workers, the Onion is a publication that never ceases making up false reports," the Evening News said.

The Beijing paper's Capitol gaffe was picked up by Western media and widely reported.

At first, the international news editor, Yu Bin, ruled out a correction, challenging a Times reporter to prove that the story was false.

But Tuesday's mea culpa conceded that a lack of vigilance had resulted in the publication of "factual inconsistencies."

"We are open to our readers' criticism, and we apologize," said the tabloid, which has a circulation of 1 million.

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