City Paper is not for tourists
The Washington Times occasionally runs corrections on Page 3 of its front section. The fixes run alongside the Times corporate directory. And that is all we know about the paper’s corrections policy, especially in light of recent events.
•On Oct. 5, the paper reported that “profit” from the D.C. Lottery was $237.3 million for fiscal year 2003. That figure was actually for sales. The Times ran a correction.
•On Oct. 23, the paper wrote that Mississippi Gov. Ronnie Musgrove was 77 years old. He was actually 47. The Times ran a correction.
•On Oct. 16, the paper wrote that an elderly woman transported to George Washington University Hospital was dead. In fact, she was alive. The Times did not run a correction.
Complexity can’t possibly excuse the paper’s failure to run a mea culpa. After all, the distinction between a dead body and a living one is pretty straightforward. The correction box need not occupy more than a couple lines.
In this case, though, the Times had powerful motives for shunning a correction—namely, holding on to a big local scoop. The story in question reported a startling string of events: On Oct. 11, an emergency medical technician told GWU hospital that he was transporting a “critically ill” patient to its emergency room. A GWU emergency-room doctor, according to the Times, asked where the patient was coming from. Southeast, came the response.
The GWU doctor proceeded to tell the ambulance guy that he’d closed the hospital’s emergency room. Yet the ambulance delivered the patient there anyway. Here’s what happened next, according to the Times: “The patient—an elderly woman in diabetic shock—died after waiting 30 minutes to be admitted to the hospital, according to city and EMS officials.”
“Too good to check,” as they say in the trade. The Times placed the story on Page A1, and for a good reason. GWU Hospital is located in Foggy Bottom, a wealthy community that borders downtown and other pricey neighborhoods such as Dupont Circle and Georgetown. A popular conspiracy theory has long held that such well-to-do hospitals routinely stiff indigent trauma patients from poorer sections of the city, such as Southeast. And the Times now was proving the theory correct—with a corpse, no less.
The resulting civic furor vindicated the paper’s story judgment. Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous, who represents a chunk of Southeast, said the “admittance incidents have a racial overtone.” And the city launched an investigation, which the Times announced in the subhead of its piece: “Woman’s death prompts probe.”
The paper was right about everything except life and death. Tony Bullock, spokesperson for Mayor Anthony A. Williams, addressed the oversight to reporter Brian DeBose, who shared a byline on the piece. “I did actually mention that to Brian….He looked a bit startled. He did not look like a happy reporter,” says Bullock.
After the Times report hit the streets, the hospital rushed to correct the record: The woman was not dead. The Times, however, didn’t come quite as clean. Instead of printing a correction, the paper in the next day’s edition couched its screw-up in the language of a civic mystery:
“There was some confusion yesterday among city and hospital officials about the patient’s status. City officials and EMTs initially told The Times that the patient—a 97-year-old woman in diabetic shock—had died while in the hospital’s care Saturday. ‘The patient that came in on Oct. 11 was received by the hospital, is doing well and is prepared for release today,’ hospital Chief Executive Officer Dan McLean said yesterday,” reads the Oct. 17 piece. That flourish of cover-your-ass journalism appeared on Page A16, tucked deep into a piece that started on the front page.
Times Metro Editor Carleton Bryant defends his paper’s anonymous sources. “We had a city official tell us that separately and someone in the fire department tell us,” says Bryant. “In the following stories, we pointed out [that] this is what we were told and is what we are being told now.”
That trick—telling a false story one day, then the truth the next—is becoming a pattern at the Times. On Sept. 30, the paper, in a massive A1 piece, reported that the D.C. school system would lose $20 million in federal education grants by the end of the day. Hours later, the school system issued a stern press release singling out the reporters—DeBose and George Archibald—for their “baseless” account. “School officials were mystified by the reporters’ unnamed sources—city government, federal education or treasury officials—who ‘discovered’ that $23.8 million of federal grant funds was unspent,” reads the statement.
The following day, the Times published another story quoting various named sources knocking down the account. But instead of admitting its errors, the paper ran its boilerplate equivocations, for example, “In discussions with school officials…there was confusion as to who is responsible for drawing down money from the federal Treasury.”
Again, no correction appeared in the paper.
The wiggles and twists bespeak an institutional refusal to let go of a kickass exclusive, conflicting facts notwithstanding. Over the years, the Times has gone to great lengths to scare up sources in law enforcement, public-safety agencies, and the local schools, which are among the few places where the paper competes against the Washington Post.
And once the Times gets a scoop, it’ll never let you forget it. The words “first reported in The Washington Times” or “Washington Times first reported” pop up in 289 of the paper’s stories since 1999. The paper’s patented Scoop Protector even makes appearances in marginal stories, such as “City finishes emergency radio fix.” And for those subscribers who don’t read the stories, the Times touts its exclusives in advertisements, with a tag line: “Get it first. Get it right.”
Perhaps all of that self-congratulation is crowding out the correction box. So far this year, the Times has printed corrections on only 81 stories. The Post—admittedly a larger paper—eclipsed that total on Jan. 24. “It’s generally understood by staff that we are a paper that does not run corrections,” says a Times reporter. “I think it’s shameful.”
The Post has a stranglehold on the trial of sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad. The paper has cultivated killer sources among sniper investigators and has blanketed court proceedings from the start.
But that’s not all it takes to publish authoritative court coverage. You also need “legal experts,” and in this category, the Post really outclasses its rivals. Legal experts are prosecutors, defense attorneys, law-school professors, and other outsiders who chime in on the proceedings. They’re generally helpful because they enable the reporter to make so many different points.
Herewith an inventory of insights from these folks, ripped straight from various Post pieces on the trial:
•On the prudence of Muhammad’s decision to act as his own attorney:
“[L]egal experts said Wednesday that his appearance before the panel and his cross-examination of prosecution witnesses could resonate with the jurors for weeks….Other experts, however, said Muhammad may have alienated jurors, upsetting them by his theatrics, particularly when he cross-examined a man who was shot five times and left for dead.”
•On the same topic, here’s John M. Burkoff of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, as quoted in the Post: “He did prove himself to be articulate. He wasn’t a crazy guy, foaming at the mouth. But this may hurt him because he may have looked more calculating to the jury.”
•In a separate “analysis” piece on Muhammad’s trial: “Some [legal experts] said the trial will take longer because Muhammad will stumble through the complexities of the case. Others said it could end quickly, particularly if Muhammad decides not to vigorously cross-examine prosecution witnesses.”
•On the outlook for Muhammad: “The other homicides and shootings the prosecutors plan to describe for the jury contain evidence that, taken together, could be difficult for Muhammad to overcome, legal experts said.”
•On the mission for Muhammad’s lawyers: “‘The defense must think strategically,’ said Anne M. Coughlin, a professor of law at the University of Virginia.”
According to legal experts, legal experts often bring valuable commentary to high-profile cases. “I think talking to experts is a perfectly legitimate news-gathering technique,” says legal expert Joseph DiGenova, former U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia. “Newspapers are supposed to report what’s happening and not design an answer, so it’s good to talk to people who are analyzing it objectively.”
Other legal experts, however, say that the utility of legal experts varies on a case-by-case basis. “Depending on what I’m asked, I’d be happy to give an opinion, but I want to be careful and guarded,” says legal expert and Warrenton, Va., defense attorney Blair Howard.
Get Your Own House in Order
The Washington Post had some fun tweaking the New York Post for its already historic “Yankees lose” editorial on the day after the Bronx Bombers’ dramatic late-night victory over the Boston Red Sox in the American League Championship Series. The sports page included a joke about the affair in its cheeky “Starting Lineup” feature, and media critic Howard Kurtz took a swing at the New York paper in his weekly column.
Note to Kurtz & Co.: Media criticism starts at home.
On the same day that the New York Post was telling the tale of Yankee woe, the Washington Post was doing, well, pretty much the same thing. The Washington Post did manage to update the headline and top of its Oct. 17 story to account for the Yankee victory, but farther down, the Red Sox carried the day.
The piece reported that Bill Mueller was “the final batter of [Roger] Clemens’s night, and the final batter of his career.” (Clemens would later start Game 4 of the World Series.)
Also: “Had the Yankees stormed back and won, they would have looked back on [Mike] Mussina’s gutsy effort as a turning point. But they did not. [Pedro] Martinez was too good, too tough.”
Says Post sports editor Emilio Garcia-Ruiz, “That’s what we get for making fun of another newspaper’s mistake. The minute you do that, the deadline gods come back and bite you on the ass.”
Post ombudsman Michael Getler generally sticks up for close-to-the-ground reporting and straightforward writing. Hence his take on the debut Post column of publishing magnate Tina Brown.
“[I]t was hard to tell if that column had anybody in mind other than the Manhattan and Hollywood ‘buzzocracy’ who perhaps understood what Ms. Brown was writing (badly) about. I don’t do columnists. But I’m granting myself dispensation to opine that this precious, egocentric (‘My husband and I have been getting an unusually large number of calls from frantic entertainment functionaries, each of whom needs a boldface name to host a “celebrity screening”’) piece was about the worst and most irrelevant thing I’ve read in my three years in this job. I was embarrassed for the paper, and also for the Web site when I read her on-line chat that included 11 plugs by her for her forthcoming TV appearance,” wrote Getler in a memo to Post reporters. —Erik Wemple