The Message

Correction Detection

Words are the building blocks of journalism, and misplacing even one of them can cause the entire superstructure to collapse. The Denver Post found this out the nasty way during the past several weeks, when separate words led to significant errors in a pair of page-one, above-the-fold stories, about President George W. Bush's State of the Union address and the sex scandal at the University of Colorado, respectively. Meanwhile, a third incident, revolving around Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell and his support staff, resulted in mixed messages from the Rocky Mountain News, a foreshortened Post report and a heavy dose of behind-the-scenes politicking.

The State of the Union story, printed on January 21, was attributed to Dana Milbank and Mike Allen of the Washington Post. The piece seen by Denver Post subscribers began, "President Bush on Tuesday night devoted the final State of the Union address of his term to a vigorous and sometimes combative defense of his actions as president, calling the United States a 'nation on a mission' that has made the right decisions to invade Iraq and cut taxes." The Post plucked its headline from this sentence: "Nation on a Mission'" appeared just under the paper's flag. Yet a look at the streaming version of these comments on the president's website, www.whitehouse.gov, shows that Bush actually said "nation with a mission," not "nation on a mission." The former also appears in the official White House transcript of the speech.

Readers who suspect the press of liberal bias may well see the printing of the inaccurate "nation on a mission" phraseology as supporting evidence, since it sounds slightly more bellicose than Bush's actual remark -- a nice companion to previous declarations such as "Bring it on." The description of the speech as "sometimes combative" only enhances this interpretation. On the other hand, the Washington Post corrected the phrasing in the article that's currently on the paper's own website, and a majority of publications around the country ran the correct version of the Milbank-Allen effort. The number that employed the "nation on a mission" variation is smaller but significant; they include the Memphis Commercial Appeal, the Mobile Register and a Post sister paper, the Oakland Tribune.

In his January 24 column, "Political Coverage: Less Bulge, More Merit," Rocky editor/publisher/president John Temple noted the Post's gaffe without pointing out that other newspapers around the country stumbled in the same way. He kept the focus local by likening the Post's front-page botch to one made by his own paper, in which failed presidential aspirant Richard Gephardt was identified as a U.S. senator (he's a representative). Nonetheless, the segment was prominent enough that it should have come to the Post's attention -- so it was unexpected when Post editor Greg Moore and managing editor Gary Clark said they'd heard nothing about the goof until more than a week later, when it was brought up by yours truly. Apparently, Temple needs to work on building his readership, especially among Post managers.

Finally, on February 8, the Post ran a correction about the presidential word jumble, which appears to have been spurred by miscommunication with the Washingtonians. Indeed, Clark reveals that representatives of the Washington Post didn't know about the problem until they were contacted by Denver Post deputy national editor Jim Bates, who was put in charge of researching the matter.

In an e-mail forwarded by Clark, Bates writes, "I talked to Kate Carlisle, the managing editor of the Washington Post wire service. She offers deep apologies. The Post updated its story for the final (at nearly 2 a.m. their time), but their wire service had already shut down, and so they did not send either an advisory or a writethrough. (She said she didn't know whether the national desk tried to tell them about the change or not, but it is academic, since it was changed after the wire service desk closed for the night.) She said that maybe there was a good object lesson for them here about the fact that some subscriber papers have later deadlines. And then she apologized again."

Good idea, since the first transmission of the Milbank-Allen story prompted the Post to not only misquote the President of the United States, but to do so in inch-high type.

On February 3, another enormous front-page headline, "CU President: Rape Didn't Occur," was just as questionable, as was the story by Post reporter Julia Martinez that accompanied it. In an e-mail, Martinez writes. "I stand by my reporting." Still, the article was removed from the paper's website that afternoon.

Martinez's summary was part of a continuing investigation by the Post, and the media at large, into practices at CU-Boulder. Three women are suing the university in connection with a 2001 party for high school and college footballers at which sexual assaults are alleged to have taken place. They argue that the school and the athletic department use sex to lure recruits, and when Boulder District Attorney Mary Keenan concurred in a deposition made public in late January, a controversy that had lain fallow for quite some time was jolted back to life. Governor Bill Owens weighed in, the state legislature threatened to launch its own inquiry, Keenan promised to look into the actions at the party again (she'd previously declined to press assault charges against possible instigators), and CU football coach Gary Barnett became a cable-news star for all the wrong reasons.

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