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Wednesday, April 2, 2008 | In journalism, as in life, mistakes are great teachers. At my first reporting job, I meant to describe a grisly traffic accident, but wound up writing my readers about the “grizzly” crash scene.
A few days later, I received a letter from one of my readers who politely inquired whether I had ever attended college. I suspect that all journalists have their own private collection of amusing or embarrassing slip-ups. Being notoriously thin-skinned, journalists are loath to let people in on their dirty little secrets — which is a shame since we can all learn from each other’s mistakes.
Here, then, is my list of the 10 worst mistakes in San Diego journalism.
No. 10: But I was told…
Let’s start close to home. The voiceofsandiego.org made an embarrassing boo-boo of its own in February 2006 when reporter Sam Hodgson relied on a spokesman’s figure for the amount of private donations received by the San Diego Fire Department.
Here’s how the correction read:
Editor’s Note: A fire department spokesman provided, and then repeatedly verified, an erroneous statistic on the amount of private donations the city’s fire department had received that was published in the original version of this article. The true amount is $937,000 not $937 million. The spokesman apologized for the mistake Wednesday.
Upshot: Journalists are still not known for their math skills.
No. 9: Eat the Document
Stories on the U.S.-Mexico border have led to several spectacular corrections.
In 1997, CBS’ “60 Minutes” claimed to have uncovered documentary proof of border corruption in San Diego. At the end of a report by correspondent Mike Wallace, viewers were shown a document purportedly written by Rudy Camacho, director of the Customs Service’s San Diego operations.
The memo called on Customs agents to process ”as quickly as possible” the trucks owned by a company linked to Mexican drug cartels. “60 Minutes” had obtained the document from Michael Horner, a former Customs agent.
Camacho sued for libel, claiming the document was bogus. Wallace stood by the document and Horner. “Reporters can be had, but I didn’t feel that I was being had,” he told The New York Times. Wallace should have listened to his former producer, Lowell Bergman, who warned the veteran correspondent about Horner. In 1999, “60 Minutes” concluded the document was a fake and apologized.
It had been written by Horner, who pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in San Diego to lying to F.B.I. agents investigating the memo.
Upshot: “60 Minutes” didn’t learn the lesson. See Rathergate.
No. 8 Don’t Trust Their Clocks
In the fall of 2005, The San Diego Union-Tribune told subscribers to set their clocks back as is the annual custom. Problem was, they were a day ahead of themselves:
The front page graphic that ran in yesterday’s editions reminding people to set their clocks back one hour should have said that daylight-saving time ended at 2 a.m. today. The Union-Tribune regrets the error.
Upshot: Time is really just an idea, right?
No. 7: That Hindu Huckster
In 1996, The Weekly Standard, a conservative political magazine, published a scathing expose on bestselling author and New Age mind-body theorist Deepak Chopra.
The Standard uncovered “strong evidence” that Chopra, who runs the Center for Wellbeing in Carlsbad, “has hired a prostitute on numerous occasions.” The magazine quoted the former call girl, Judy Bangert, and gave her a lie detector test to verify her claims. Chopra filed a $35 million libel lawsuit against the Standard and writer Matt Labash, and filed a separate claim against Bangert in San Diego Superior Court.
Editor William Kristol (now a columnist for The New York Times) stood by the story at first, but when Bangert recanted, the magazine was forced to eat crow. The Standard settled the case confidentially in 1997 and apologized for publishing “false” and “misleading” allegations against Chopra as well as for using terms like “huckster” and “Hindu televangelist,” and for “the general tone” of the article.
Upshot: Talk softly and hire a lawyer who goes for the jugular.
No. 6: I’m Not Dead Yet
In September 2002, The New York Times broke news that a murder suspect had died at a hospital in Chula Vista. Miles Dabord was suspected of murdering his brother, Bison Dele, a former NBA center for the Detroit Pistons, while they were sailing in the South Pacific. Dabord had been in a coma at Scripps Hospital after trying to kill himself with an overdose of medication. Then this:
A sports article yesterday about Miles Dabord, who went into a coma on Sept. 14 after being sought in the disappearance of three people including his brother, the former basketball player Bison Dele, misstated his condition at a California hospital. Mr. Dabord, whom the police in Tahiti suspect of having killed the three, did not die on Thursday. Last night he was reported in critical condition.
Upshot: When the Times published its correction, Dabord was dead
No. 5 Drug Smugglers Go Free!
In May 1996, The Los Angeles Times touched off a partisan political furor with a story about the release of Mexican drug smugglers. The front-page story by reporter H.G. Reza cited government figures that more than 1,000 smuggling suspects had been let go in the past two years.
Reza’s story pointed the blame at the U.S. Attorney in San Diego, Alan Bersin. His office would not prosecute Mexican drug smugglers caught with less than 125 pounds of marijuana. Why? There wasn’t room for them. Bersin had filled the jail with illegal immigrants to score political points for the Clinton White House. On May 29, the newspaper published a 459-word retraction after it got hold of Bersin’s internal prosecution guidelines. The guidelines showed that the story had overstated the matter. GOP Sen. Bob Dole, then running for president, made political hay with the story and continued to do so even after the Times acknowledged it was wrong.
Upshot: Weak stories wither in the sunlight.
No. 4 Miguel’s Not Stealing Hubcaps
Dan Tedrick, San Diego’s AP correspondent in the 1970s, was the author of several blunders that have become something of a legend in the wire service bureau.
One example was Tedrick’s story about the city’s efforts to curb tagging by allowing graffiti artists to paint art in designated areas. The story predates the wire service’s electronic archive, but two AP veterans still remember the blatantly racist lead that the wire service swiftly spiked: “Miguel’s not stealing hubcaps any longer. Jose isn’t ripping off car stereos this summer.”
Upshot: Corrections are often more memorable than the story.
No. 3 Cat Strangled at City Hall
On Feb. 27, 2008, readers of the North County Times noticed the following line in an AP wire story about a new law in Los Angeles requiring pet owners to spay and neuter their pets:
“We will, sooner rather than later, become a no-kill city and this is the greatest step in that direction,” Councilman Tony Cardenas, who co-authored the bill, said as he strangled a kitten at a City Hall news conference. (emphasis added)
Substituting “strangled” for “held” was editor Scott Reeder’s version of a joke that had made it into print. Editor Kent Davy apologized in a front-page correction. Reeder lost his job.
Upshot: Good thing Cardenas wasn’t holding a chicken.
No. 2 La Costa Nostra
A 1975 article in Penthouse magazine on the La Costa resort in Carlsbad led to one of the biggest libel lawsuits in U.S. history.
Future Pulitzer Prize winners Lowell Bergman and Jeff Gerth reported that two of the resorts founders, Merv Adelson and Irving Molaskey, had connections with organized crime. Adelson and Molaskey responded with a libel lawsuit seeking more than half a billion dollars.
Before trial, Gerth and Bergman got cold feet, apologized, and settled their case, but Penthouse kept up the fight. Following a lengthy trial, the jury found in favor of the adult magazine, but Judge Kenneth Gale threw out the verdict and ordered a new trial. In December 1985, the two sides settled on the eve of the second trial. Penthouse said it did not mean to imply that Adelson and Molaskey are or were members of the Mob.
Upshot: The lawyers won.
No. 1 Hedgecock’s “Slush Fund”
The stakes were never bigger in April 1984 when the San Diego Union published a front-page report on a $400,000 slush fund secretly controlled by Mayor Roger Hedgecock.
The story was based on sources close to the county grand jury, which was investigating the mayor’s personal and private finances. Hedgecock, up for reelection that year, swiftly filed a $3 million libel lawsuit against the newspaper. In a now familiar pattern, the Union stood by the story initially and then issued a full front-page retraction under editor Jerry Warren’s byline.
Hedgecock won reelection in November 1984 by beating Dick Carlson, father of MSNBC’s Tucker. The following year, Hedgecock left office after he was convicted of conspiracy and 12 counts of perjury relating to improper campaign contributions. (An appellate court overturned the perjury convictions.)
Upshot: Hedgecock began a broadcasting career after leaving office and his ratings soared on his Mexican-bashing tirades. Today, he occasionally subs for Rush Limbaugh.
Remember any of your own favorite corrections? Send them along.
Seth Hettena, a San Diego-based freelance journalist and author, writes an occasional column “The Peanut Gallery” about local media and journalism. You can e-mail him at email@example.com with your complaints, thoughts or stories about San Diego reporters.