News that a small Montana newspaper inserted the word “allegedly” in the midst of an AP news story -- so that it read “Obama was allegedly born in Hawaii” -- caused a small furor Tuesday. But how should we read this latest commentary on the president’s birthright?
A) Proof that racism runs rampant in American society.
B) Evidence that "birthers" have infiltrated the ranks of the mainstream media.
C) An instance of precision from journalists, most of whom have been too willing to accept flimsy proof of President Obama’s birthplace.
D) As a window into how bored journalists amuse themselves on deadline.
It would be more fun to vote for one of the more nefarious conclusions, but in fact America can be almost certain that the scribes at the Helena Independent Record don’t really think Obama was reared on the Serengeti.
I’m voting for D).
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And that would be the explanation offered in an editor’s note Tuesday — that a copy editor inserted the offending modifier into an otherwise accurate account from Associated Press, “thinking the other copy editor would catch it, [but] he didn’t.” The note added: “It was a poor attempt at humor and a poor decision, but was not intended to be printed in the paper.”
Having worked for decades at newspapers, I can confirm that copy editors (and other editorial life forms) do strange things.
A group of reporters at one paper once had a competition to slip odd words into stories where they didn’t really fit. The scribes worked their way through all of the 10 or so words on their list, though all of them failed to find a place for “spatula” in a news story. They couldn’t wedge the “spatula” in anywhere, not in pieces about global warming, or literature or politics. The journalists considered this an epic failure.
At one Southern newspaper decades ago, I am told, the reporters had an informal competition to get "creamy white thighs" in a story. The court reporter finally took the brass ring with a story that involved a fight in a fried chicken outlet.
It’s not pretty. It just is.
Back to the current kerfuffle. AP’s crackerjack White House correspondent, Jim Kuhnhenn, had delivered a story from Obama’s Asian tour that included this paragraph: “The Asia trip underscores Obama’s efforts to establish the United States as an Asia-Pacific power, a worldview defined by 21st century geopolitics but also by Obama’s personal identity as America’s first Pacific president. Obama was born in Hawaii.”
Normally, copy editors at hundreds of AP subscriber papers would run the story, as is, perhaps cutting to make the story fit the allotted space in print. But on a slow Saturday shift, I’m guessing some Big Sky wisenheimer might instead decide to send a tester to a colleague. Insert “allegedly” here. See if your pal in the adjacent cubicle catches the obvious incitement.
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Nine hundred and ninety nine times out of 1,000 newspaper jokesters remove such inanities personally or, better yet, snicker them over without inserting them in real, live copy. No harm done and then on to the Montana State volleyball story. In this case, the unnamed copy editor doubtless got distracted by some other duty — maybe the story about the shutdown of the local Hostess outlet — and forgot to undo his little funny. Really stupid.
The paper’s regional editor, Gerry O’Brien, declined to comment. In an email he said: “This is really just a bad mistake by a very talented copy editor.”
A former AP staffer who lives in Montana did not appreciate the joke.
“ ‘Allegedly born in Hawaii?’ ” read the missive from Tom Laceky to the Independent Record. “As if there is any doubt? That right-wing notion has been so thoroughly discredited that only Donald Trump and assorted other loonies still cling to it. Neither the AP nor - I hope - The Independent Record belongs in their company.”
It’s understandable that Americans have grown tired about the Obama-as-foreign-agent canard. But that doesn’t mean that late-night comics, and bored copy editors, will stop joking about the whopper any time soon.