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.
Also on the defensive was CU president Elizabeth "Betsy" Hoffman, which helps explain why the Martinez article seemed to deserve major play. Martinez wrote, "University of Colorado president Betsy Hoffman said Monday that while students drank alcohol and did 'very irresponsible things' at a 2001 party at which a former student claims she was raped, no sexual assault occurred. More sworn testimony is expected to be released this week that will shed a different light on the football scandal and show that there was no sexual misconduct at the party for football recruits, Hoffman said."
Unlike the Post's State of the Union banner, the heading on the Martinez report isn't a direct quote; it merely simulates one. More telling, there are no quotes around the opinion credited to Hoffman in the above passage. Instead, she is paraphrased -- and, according to Hoffman, paraphrased incorrectly.
On February 4's front page, a box labeled "CU President Says She Never Denied Rape Claim" found Hoffman emphasizing "that she has drawn no conclusion about whether a sexual assault occurred.... Hoffman said she told a Post reporter that some sworn testimony will contradict claims that there was sexual misconduct at the party and contradict claims that CU uses sex as a recruiting tool. But Hoffman said she did not tell the reporter that no rape occurred." Next, editor Moore stated that "the paper carefully reviewed with the reporter her notes and her recollection of the interview with Hoffman. 'We believe there was a lack of clear communication between Elizabeth Hoffman and our reporter,' Moore said. 'We regret that and decided we needed to clarify our report.'"
Careful readers will notice that the above is hardly a standard correction. It doesn't contain a straightforward admission of error on the part of the reporter and/or newspaper, and the line about "a lack of clear communication" seems to hold Hoffman partly responsible for the faux pas. In conversation, Moore removes the ambiguity. "I think the reporter got it wrong," he says.
"Here's what I think happened," Moore continues. "Julia interviewed Betsy for about an hour; she caught her after a meeting with legislators. Betsy said the depositions have contradictions and that some people think that nothing happened. Now, at some point, Julia was trying to get more information, and she asked, 'Are you saying that no sexual assault occurred?' -- and Betsy replied, 'Yes.' In Julia's mind, she was asking Hoffman,'Based on your reading of the depositions, is that what you believe?' And Betsy only meant to say, 'There are some people who have given depositions who would say that.'"
To put it another way, that single "yes" from Hoffman sent the Post on a false path. "I know Betsy Hoffman, and I don't think she's lying -- and neither does Julia," Moore says.
Hoffman subsequently issued a statement that seemed to confuse things further. She maintained that the Post's "headline was inaccurate and misleading as a description of what I said" without alluding to the article, which echoed the label placed upon it. Even so, Moore acknowledges that there was no lack of clear communication this time around.
"I understand how it happened, but I'm not trying to defend it," he says. "This is a very big story, a big event in the life of CU, and we're big boys. If we make a mistake, we're going to correct it."
The Rocky applied this same philosophy to its coverage of Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell chief of staff Ginnie Kontnik, but the tenet was put through the wringer along the way. As for the Post, its attempts to get the facts inspired Campbell himself to get involved.
The Kontnik-go-round began spinning on January 31, when the Rocky published "No Thanks, Hart Says to a Senate Bid," by reporter M.E. Sprengelmeyer. The article's focus was the proclamation by former senator Gary Hart that he wouldn't oppose Campbell in the 2004 election, but the fifth paragraph touched on a related subject deemed important enough to receive a front-page reference. It read, "Campbell announced a major shake-up in his office, ousting longtime chief of staff, Ginny [sic] Kontnik. The move stunned fellow Republicans. She was Campbell's trusted adviser when he left the Democratic Party and became a Republican amid his first Senate term. She could not be reached for comment."
What took place in the wake of this report is fairly convoluted, but within a day or two, Campbell's office asserted that Kontnik hadn't been sacked and retained the chief-of-staff title, albeit with some different duties. Although this shift should have required a Rocky correction, none appeared -- at least not right away. Rather, a tiny item was tagged to a collection of February 3 news briefs under the caption "Etc." Of its three short sentences, the key one was, "Campbell denied a story in Saturday's Rocky Mountain News that he 'ousted' Kontnik as his chief of staff."
The Post tackled this same topic on February 4 in a short article by Washington bureau reporter Mike Soraghan that seemed to delight in the Rocky's boo-boo. "Call it the big shake-up that wasn't," Soraghan wrote prior to disputing "published reports over the weekend."
The Rocky obviously understood what Soraghan was getting at. On February 5, the paper finally corrected the January 31 Kontnik graph, conceding that the headline and story "should have said that U.S. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell's chief of staff, Ginnie Kontnik, had been reassigned to other office duties." Notice that no apology was submitted for use of the word "ousting."
Readers may not have grasped Soraghan's insinuation quite so quickly, but his coyness about identifying the newspaper responsible for the "published reports" is nothing out of the ordinary. Both Denver newspapers have a long, silly tradition of avoiding the mention of their main competitor whenever possible. Temple's citation of the Post regarding the State of the Union headline was a happy exception to this rule.
"Athlete Rips Published Reports," an article in the February 6 Rocky by B.G. Brooks, was not. It concerned Lynell Hamilton, a footballer who'd previously fingered the University of Oregon for dangling drugs and sex in front of him during a recruiting visit. Hamilton insisted, however, that no one at CU had done the same when he came here -- an avowal that would have seemed a lot more relevant had readers had been told that the Post's Diane Carman had said otherwise in her column on February 1.
As it turned out, there was more missing from Soraghan's article than just the Rocky's name by the time it saw print. "I researched the story and turned it in, and it was edited," Soraghan says. "It's not uncommon for stories to be edited and changed. This one was shortened maybe more than some, but it wasn't killed...and the basic facts of [Kontnik's] status didn't change." He stresses that the research was conducted at the behest of Moore, who wanted to get to the bottom of Kontnik's situation.
Moore received supplementary information directly from the source, via a personal call from Senator Campbell prior to the publication of the Post's Kontnik account. "He called to complain about Soraghan -- about his tactics, his interview style, a litany of other complaints," Moore allows. "It had been building up, and he was aggravated about some of the implications." Moore didn't promise Campbell that he'd rein in Soraghan. To the contrary, he says, "I want our reporters to be aggressive." At the same time, he notes, "we need to be able to talk to our elected officials," so he anticipated that he or Washington bureau chief John Aloysius Farrell would soon chat with Soraghan about finding a middle ground.
Did the conversation with Campbell inspire cuts in Soraghan's article? Absolutely not, says Moore; he made the alterations for his own reasons. "What we ran was the gist of what Mike had in the story. There was some other stuff, but it was speculation -- blind quotes about what might have precipitated tension, and stuff with Campbell's wife saying, 'I don't know anything about that.' So I cut it out. First of all, we rarely, if ever, run blind quotes. There's no need for it. If we know something to be true, let's report it. But let's not get into speculation."
Resisting this temptation is no cinch, even for me. A February 6 call for comment to longtime Campbell press spokeswoman Camden Hubbard was transferred to another staffer who was said to now be handling reporter requests. Then, moments later, Hubbard left a voice mail saying that she'd intercepted the initial message. Hubbard added that she didn't "know anything" about Campbell's dialogue with Moore, or the senator's potential unhappiness with Soraghan and the Post in general. Three more messages seeking elaboration and clarification of Hubbard's status were left for her throughout the day, but none were returned.
Maybe there isn't a big shake-up in Campbell country, but it's tough to be certain. A shortage of words is just as troublesome as too many of the wrong ones.
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The return that wasn't: In this column's previous edition, KNRC morning-show host Greg Dobbs predicted that he'd be back behind the microphone in several weeks after recuperating from an unpleasant medical condition. But like the malrotated bowel that put him on the shelf, his life has undergone a surprising twist. "You know the expression 'I love my work, but I hate my job'?" he asks. "I hated my job for one simple reason: I hate getting up in the middle of the night." After musing on his feelings for several weeks, he says, "I realized I couldn't face that brutal schedule." Fortunately, Dobbs has another means of support: Newslike Productions, which makes videos, films and commercials. So on February 9, he announced his resignation from KNRC.
This change is the biggest to have taken place of late at the ratings-starved outlet, but it's hardly the only one. Last week, program director Alan Eisenson left to take over a pair of stations in Sacramento; Tim Brown, CEO of NRC Broadcasting, characterizes the move as "a mutual decision." And the weeknight show featuring Bill Thorpe and Dominick Brascia has been jettisoned in favor of a syndicated effort starring (gag) Michael Reagan. Brascia was pink-slipped, but Thorpe is still with the station, as the assistant to Eisenson's replacement, afternoon host Doug Kellett.
Brown says KNUS vet Jimmy Lakey, Dobbs's most recent sub, "will be our person moving forward." That means that KNRC, which promotes itself as presenting "both sides" of the political spectrum, will have entrenched conservatives (Lakey and Kellett) in its two highest-profile slots. This doesn't contradict station policy, Brown insists, because "we encourage everyone to have people who disagree with them on their shows." That will be true of callers in the 6 a.m.-to-10 a.m. slot, too, since it's likely that listeners drawn to Dobbs's relative liberalism will object to most of what Lakey espouses.
Dobbs's departure "is definitely a loss" for KNRC, Brown notes. Whether the station, like Dobbs, will recover is up in the air.