Unless thousands upon thousands of news reports were terribly wrong, former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto was assassinated on December 27 in advance of parliamentary elections in which she planned to challenge the country's current president, Pervez Musharraf. But in the January 6 Denver Post, and in plenty of other newspapers across the country on the same day, she was portrayed as very much alive.
Bhutto's photo dominated the cover of Parade magazine, a regular insert in the Sunday Post, running alongside a headline that read: "Is Benazir Bhutto America's Best Hope Against al-Qaeda? 'I Am What the Terrorists Most Fear.'" Inside, the head featured a similar tone: 'As Benazir Bhutto Seeks a Return to Power, Tuesday's Election in Pakistan Could Profoundly Affect the Fight Against Terrorism. 'A Wrong Must Be Righted.'" Of course, those elections, which had been slated for January 8, have been postponed until February as a result of Bhutto's death -- but the piece itself, by prominent scribe Gail Sheehy, didn't feature that fact. Instead, it lionized Bhutto in the present tense.
To put it mildly, this material runs counter to reality, as the Post acknowledged in a note that appeared on page two of the paper:
"To our readers: This week's issue of Parade magazine went to press before the Dec. 27 assassination of Pakistan's Benazir Bhutto. In the issue, contributing editor and best-selling author Gail Sheehy presents one of the last interviews with Bhutto before her death. Bhutto told Sheehy that she had long been a target of terrorists and that she knew she could be murdered at any time. The interview appears in Parade inside today's Sunday Denver Post."
As pointed out in this Associated Press article, the reason for the problem came down to deadlines. Parade publisher Randy Siegel said the article "went to press on Dec. 21 and was already on its way to the 400 newspapers that distribute it" at the time of the assassination. In his view, the only option at that point was to ask newspapers not to distribute the magazine, but "we decided that this was an important interview to share with the American people."
Execs at many of the 400 or so newspapers that run Parade apparently agreed. And like the Post, quite a few high-profile dailies -- the Washington Post, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and more -- included editor's notes explaining the contradiction, some of which appeared on page one. Among the most useful of them was a missive in the Oklahoma City Oklahoman under the signature of editor Ed Kelley. He wrote:
"Partner papers — and readers, too — expect Parade to report relevant news stories in addition to its usual supply of features, advice and celebrity interviews. We've had a wonderful relationship with Parade for 30 years, and there have been only a few times in which the magazine's attempts to provide important stories concerning newsmakers have been outdated upon publication. Unfortunately, Sunday was one of those times."
Nevertheless, the Bhutto situation only makes papers seem that much more disposable as a source of breaking news, especially in comparison with the Internet. Parade was able to preface the piece with current information on its website, and while some of the introduction's phrasing is frankly weird (the profile is called a "Jan. 6 interview," which, if true, would have been pretty one-sided), it at least put Sheehy's offering in the proper context. In contrast, the print edition was an anachronism by ten full days -- an eternity in today's media terms.
Think of it as all of last year's news that's fit to print. -- Michael Roberts
Update, 12:20 p.m., January 7:
Just heard back from Gary Clark, managing editor of the Denver Post, in regard to the decision to include the Parade magazine featuring an out-of-date Benazir Bhutto cover story in the January 6 edition. Here's his response:
"The issue is as you've reported: Parade was printed before the assassination, and was shipped to us for insertion into the Sunday paper. We were not asked by the publisher of Parade to hold the magazine, so we ran the editor's note. It may have helped readers more if we had run it on the front page, but we have received only one complaint that I know of, so I hope readers understand. I do think the interview was still worth publishing. Death didn't diminish the value of what she had to say." -- MR
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