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On Oct. 14, the Outlook section of the Washington Post ran this piece on the dreaded tendency of airlines these days to overbook their flights. The story was cleverly written. Author A.L. Bardach wove her story of overbooking hell with the chilling tale of Carol Gotbaum, the woman who famously died on Sept. 28 at Phoenix airport. The 45-year-old New Yorker was en route to an alcohol-rehabilitation program in Tucson, but she went off the handle when she couldn’t get on her flight and was arrested by police. She died, handcuffed, in an airport holding cell.
Outlook added a fabulous twist to the story: Gotbaum was a victim of overbooking. In breathless fashion, Bardach’s piece painted her as a victim the corporate greed inherent in overbooking. Here’s the teaser for the story: “A DEATH FORETOLD.” Here’s the headline: “Why Flying Now Can Kill.” And here’s the nut: “There’s every reason to believe that Gotbaum would be alive today if she had been allowed to board her flight to Tucson and take her rightful seat.”
Bardach even goes this far in drawing parallels between her own experience and Gotbaum’s: “I am haunted by the death of Carol Anne Gotbaum.”
Now, Bardach will be haunted by this letter from the airline, US Airways, which refutes her version of events: “The overbooking issue…just does not apply to Mrs. Gotbaum. She did not get on the flight because she arrived after the flight had closed.”
A little review here: The story is based on the notion that Gotbaum got bumped because of overbooking. But in fact, she wasn’t overbooked. So the story crumbles. There’s nothing left of it, not even its carcass.
Journalism has a remedy for a situation like this, and it’s called a retraction. It’s designed for cases in which factual mistakes are so severe that a simple correction won’t put things right.
Yet what did the Post do? Here you go.
Correction: An Oct. 14 Outlook article incorrectly said a woman who died in police custody after an incident at an airport gate in Phoenix had been denied a seat on a US Airways/Mesa Airlines flight because of overbooking. The woman was denied a seat because she arrived late at the gate, after the door to the overbooked flight had been closed.
A correction would’ve been appropriate if the story had gotten her age wrong, misstated her destination, messed up the name of the airline, fucked up the date of the incident, erred in reporting the circumstances of her arrest, misplaced the location of the holding cell, stated the wrong hometown, whatever.
But when the mistake is so big that there’s no story left, you can’t just run a correction.
Outlook chief John Pomfret emailed this response when he was posed a general question about the matter: “[T]here’s really not that much to say about the correction. After we published the piece, additional facts came to light that in our judgment warranted a correction and a correction was made.”