Avoidable Errors Erode Confidence in 'Enquirer'

Pointing out Enquirer errors — mistaken information that localcopy editors would have caught in the Good Old Days — used to be a guiltypleasure. Today, repeated lapses raise a serious question.

click to enlarge More exclusives, less editing
More exclusives, less editing

Pointing out Enquirer errors — mistaken information that local copy editors would have caught in the Good Old Days — used to be a guilty pleasure.

Sort of like catching The New Yorker in a typo.

Today, repeated lapses raise a serious question: Have years of buyouts, firings and redefined duties eroded newsroom discipline? 

I’ve seen troubled patches before. During a particularly bad period, I retired. In a brief, required exit interview, I said mistakes no longer mattered, and after more than 30 years I didn’t  fit in. No one argued or asked me to stay.

The Enquirer still does good work on major stories when veteran reporters are provided time to report and write. It’s the “small stuff” that’s corrosive.

I’ve worked for a daily paper or news service for 50-plus years. I know that an occasional mistake is inevitable when every word is new every day. Copy editors caught mine and I caught other reporters’ errors as an editor. It was a multi-layer system where accountability was clear; red faces and bruised egos were part of the trade. 

(As an aside, defamation is part of journalism. We do harm reputations. The question is whether the harm is justified and defamation is supported by facts shared with readers.)

In one memorable case, a reporter accurately repeated a defamatory phrase from an earlier local story in the Enquirer’s clipping file. The subject apparently hadn’t seen the earlier version but he sued for libel after it was repeated.

The paper settled before it went to trial. The reporter was scorched for repeating the defamatory statement without checking whether it was true (and therefore, not libelous).

However, the paper fired the copy editor who let it through without challenge. He should have kicked it back to the reporter or the reporter’s immediate editor. Absent facts that supported the defamation, he should have rejected the story and made it clear to senior editors why. He didn’t.

That isn’t the kind of the mistake I’m talking about. Nor am I grousing about bad information provided in good faith by sources on whom reporters must rely in evolving stories. 

Rather, it’s the trickle of avoidable errors that erodes confidence in the Enquirer’s franchise. 

While WVXU and WCPO.com play complementary roles in local coverage, we need a sole surviving daily whose local content we can trust.

Part of the problem is in the newsroom at 312 Elm St. Too many stories, photo captions, cutlines and headlines are wrong. I don’t call them “errors of fact” because there were no facts. This isn’t my fantasy. Editor Carolyn Washburn’s long, detailed and recent catalog of errors in one Sunday paper admonished her staff to do better, but it didn’t change anything as far as I can tell. Nothing short of a fear of making a mistake begins the turnaround.

Some of these errors reflect Gannett-ordered reorganization of job titles and duties. Too few newsroom employees retain a title including the word “editor” with its implication of hands-on discipline. 

When responsibilities are outsourced to regional copy desks and distant editors, avoidable errors became inevitable. 

Under one of Washburn’s predecessors, the 9 a.m. perp walk to his corner office was watched with fascination. No one wanted to make it. What happened behind the editor’s closed door remained personal and private. He praised in public and criticized in private. 

More than the perp walk, however, we feared not doing our best. 

So why all of this today?

Recent clangers included text under a photo illustrating a P&G move to Mason from Blue Ash. Only it referred to White Ash. This was a big story with a hint of Blue Ash pique over perceived poaching. Someone should have caught the error before readers did. 

Awkward page design placed an ad announcing PANSIES ARE READY! next to a story announcing “Louisville 11 in percentage of gays.” That one made the online journalism website, jimromenesko.com, with a wink, nudge and nod.

An ineptly edited story in the More Local section addressed the risk of lost trade because of Indiana’s new Religious Freedom law. As it’s understood, the law protects anti-gay discrimination. Credited to Gannett’s Indianapolis Star, the story didn’t mention LGBT objections until the eighth paragraph. 

Neither the Star reporter nor Enquirer editors explicitly explained the Indiana law. There was ample opportunity; the story involved more than 20 paragraphs. 

Because the Enquirer’s archive is so difficult to use, I went to Google for details on the Indiana Religious Freedom law.

Botched local editing marred the initial story of the street assault trial of someone named Evans who is a UC quarterback. Enquirer editing left out QB Evans’ first name. The headline and story said a “knockout game” was involved but didn’t say what a “knockout game” was. Print and online stories suffered the same omission. I shouldn’t need Google to understand an Enquirer headline or story or what the “knockout game” is. 

Washburn’s memo and continuing avoidable foul ups suggest that Enquirer newsroom discipline is plummeting. 

As I said before, I’ve seen it happen before. 

When second generation desktop computers arrived at the Enquirer, software tracked everyone in the newsroom who touched a story. Before long, aggrieved editors persuaded the Enquirer to limit the ability of reporters to track editing. 

Still, even that had a salutary effect on reporters and editors. It restored accountability that generations had known in the typewriter and carbon paper era of local editing.

The only time I considered quitting the Enquirer — I packed my few possessions in a cardboard box — was when a senior editor “recast” a story to meet her idea of what it should have said. 

I didn’t know this until my immediate editor asked a question that befuddled me; I told her I didn’t understand because I hadn’t written what troubled her. 

We tracked the changes back to the senior editor and found my original story in the computer. Distortions and inaccuracies in the rewritten story were blatant. 

If the recast story appeared with my byline, I would not return the next day, I told my immediate editor, and I walked out, carrying my cardboard box. 

My original story appeared with my byline and I was at my desk as expected at 8:30 a.m. Nothing more was said, but looking back, that was almost a Golden — now Lost — Age of local accountability. 

Today, with Gannett-ordered outsourcing and changes in titles, roles and duties, traditional quality assurance has broken down and no one seems to be accountable. “Mistakes were made” has replaced “Get it first but first get it right.”

CURMUDGEON NOTES:

I was a bit player in the Enquirer’s coverage of the Pete Rose betting scandal and I was delighted with James Pilcher’s two-day reconstruction of the probe that led to Rose’s ban from baseball. 

More than fine storytelling, Pilcher’s Page 1 coverage showed what a veteran investigative reporter can do with a document trove and access to central figures from those days. 

He was helped by the wisdom and ability of Enquirer reporters to preserve their Rose documents in the move from 617 Vine St. to 312 Elm St. 

One lasting memory from that period was the damage to our coverage by the paper’s ban on unidentified sources in local stories.

It was an excess of virtue. Top editors knew individuals in Rose’s orbit faced likely prosecution and wouldn’t speak on the record. Still, the paper hewed to ban unnamed sources too long.

Ideally, we tell readers who our sources are. On the Rose story, other papers were eating our breakfast, lunch, supper and midnight snack. Editors put an effective gag on some of the best efforts by some of our best reporters. 

The break came with a newsroom rebellion over an Enquirer story quoting “published sources” without saying the sources were the Dayton Daily News. That was worse than being scooped; it was tacky. Embarrassment resolved what reason could not. 

After that, we could quote unidentified sources and it became obvious how good our reporters were at getting the story. There wasn’t much they didn’t learn and they shared it all with readers. Others began to quote the Enquirer

I couldn’t ignore Sunday’s dramatic demand on the cover of the Enquirer opinion section to reinstate Pete. Didn’t the editors read James Pilcher’s two-day Enquirer reconstruction of Rose’s betting, lying and disgrace? Or do West Side waters wash away a Home Boy’s sins? 

• It tells us how good a reporter Amber Hunt is when men tell her about their penis problems. 

Her Enquirer stories about a Sharonville clinic promising to treat erectile dysfunction addressed clinic management, physicians’ qualifications, charges and disagreement whether the treatments were effective or hazardous. 

The Sharonville clinic continues buying Enquirer ads but Hunt said the owner will stop claiming that treatments are “Board Certified Urologist Approved.”  That change reflects how her reporting revealed that “there is no local urologist affiliated with the clinic.”

If Amber Hunt’s scrutiny of physician qualifications at a Sharonville clinic weren’t enough to remind Enquirer readers of the value of skilled, time-consuming reporting, the resignation of Illinois Republican Congressman Aaron Schock should make the case. 

Schock was a boy wonder. Youngest congressman. Magazine cover revealing rock-hard abs. Parties everywhere. 

But when a Washington Post reporter decided to write how Schock spent taxpayer funds to turn his Capitol Hill office into a costly Downton Abbey look-alike, Schock’s spokesman tried unsuccessfully to kill the story. 

That was the beginning of the end. The Post described the decorations and the attempt to kill the story.

USA Today reporter Paul Singer dug into Schock’s spending and private flights at taxpayer expense. Politico.com, the Chicago Sun-Times and a blog called Blue Nation Review looked into other Schock deals and goodies. 

Finally, according to USA Today’s Singer, “the Associated Press scraped ‘metadata’ off of Schock's prodigious Instagram output and was able to connect specific trips to specific improper flights.”

Singer noted how “all of these stories required actual reporters to dig up actual public records and to sort out what was just weird from what was potentially corrupt. It was not enough to aggregate some already public news or be first to tweet a quote from a press conference.”

• For years, now-retired Judge Mark P. Painter tried with varying success to teach lawyers to write clear English. Too often, it seems, local authors of egregious examples of gobbledegook were offended. 

They’ve avenged their pain. Cincinnati Bar Association’s Report dropped his Legal Writer regular column after 80 issues. 

Silencing Painter isn’t easy. He bought ads in the Enquirer that included his resignation from the CBA.

In his ad, Painter said the first column that CBA rejected for the April issue faulted writing in the Enquirer (“our daily pamphlet”), the Ohio Supreme Court, Qantas Airlines, Microsoft and others. 

When he protested, CBA stood firm, but it “invited me to write a final one,” his ad said. “They refused to publish it too.” That’s the one in the ad with a link to the earlier, offending column. As Painter said, “The CBA has the right to censor anything in its publications. But it has confused what it has a right to do with what it ought to do.”

Painter said he’s also quitting writing seminars for CBA but he will continue to teach nationally.

A howler came in Gannett’s Times of Acadiana in Lafayette, LA. Page 1 announced that something was, “Very Louisisna." The paper outsources its editing and page design to a distant, central corporate copy/design desk. In this case, the page was designed in Des Moines, Iowa, where French names are unfamiliar. 

The New York Times’ public editor Margaret Sullivan says she blew it when she faulted the paper’s reporters and editors for an important element in their coverage of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.

She says she “found fault with what I saw as ‘dubious equivalency’ and the vaguely described anonymous sourcing in an article that led the paper on Aug. 20.

“Giving implicit credence to the named sources who described Michael Brown as having his hands up as he was fired on by Officer Darren Wilson, I criticized the use of unnamed sources who offered opposing information: They said that the officer had reason to fear Mr. Brown. 

“I even went so far as to call those unnamed sources ‘ghosts’ because readers had so little ability to evaluate
their identity and credibility. Now that the Justice Department has cleared Mr. Wilson in an 86-page report that included the testimony of more than 40 witnesses, it’s obvious to me that it was important to get that side of the story into the paper.”

Sullivan said, “that as the story’s editor, James Dao, said at the time, reporters and editors were making an effort to get at all sides of a fast-moving story. He told me that ‘the reporting gives some insight into how law enforcement is viewing this case — this is what they say they’ve got.’ He was right.

“In retrospect, it’s clear to me that including that information wasn’t false balance. It was an effort to get both sides.”

A British libel trial is going to be a hoot. An American academic who claims to be a pricey prostitute is suing a former boyfriend who says she wasn’t a call girl and her books, claiming to record her sexual adventures, are fiction.

Put another way, she’s claiming that he defames her, ruins her reputation and damages her ability to sell erotic stories by claiming she’s faking it. 

• Again, I might have missed it, but don’t reporters and analysts recall the last time Egypt invaded Yemen? Then, it was politics rather than religion by which combatants identified themselves. An exception was a guest with a sense of history Monday on NPR’s Diane Rehm Show. Egyptian President Nasser took sides and lost thousands of men in the war between independent North (Sanaa) and South (Aden) Yemen. Eventually, the North and South merged into the chaotic Yemen we have today.
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