Wednesday, August 14, 2013

IF IT'S IN BLACK AND WHITE, IT COULD TURN YOU RED ALL OVER

There is a very wise rule of thumb in the newspaper business that I suspect has an electronic media equivalent. It goes something like this: Never use dummy copy as a filler or write something inappropriate in copy that you expect someone else to catch and fix or remove before it ends up being published in the paper. Or, more simply put: If you don't want it to "accidently" get into the paper, don't do it.

Unfortunately, that rule is too often violated and the result is sometimes a major public embarrassment.

Currently, this screw up -- brought to us via http://www.newscastic.com -- is making the social media rounds among journalists:

 15 Times "Filler Text" Become a Journalist's Worst Enemy

 http://www.newscastic.com/news/15-times-filler-text-become-a-journalists-worst-enemy-797964/

This is just one of the rule-of-thumb-violation debacles featured. If you are interested in the full horror show, here is the link: http://www.newscastic.com/news/15-times-filler-text-become-a-journalists-worst-enemy-797964/

During my nearly 44 years in the newspaper business, I witnessed numerous such embarrassing occurrences in both my own and other newspapers.

The personally most embarrassing occurred came while I was managing editor of The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., in the late 1970s, destroying the impact of what was an otherwise incredible piece of investigative reporting.

At the time, U.S. Sen. John Stennis, D-Miss., was pressing hard to have Congress approve final funding and design for the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, a man-made waterway that would link the Tennessee River near Corinth, Miss., and the Tombigbee River in Alabama. A large portion of the waterway was to pass through eastern Mississippi, to create a water transportation link to the Gulf of Mexico.

Wikipedia succinctly describes the Tenn-Tom this way:

"The Tennessee–Tombigbee Waterway (popularly known as the Tenn-Tom) is a 234-mile (377-kilometer) man-made waterway that extends from the Tennessee River to the junction of the Black Warrior-Tombigbee River system near Demopolis, Alabama, United States. The Tennessee–Tombigbee Waterway links commercial navigation from the nation’s midsection to the Gulf of Mexico. The major features of the waterway are 10 locks and dams, a 175-foot (53 m) deep cut between the Tombigbee River watershed and the Tennessee River watershed, and 234 miles (377 km) of navigation channels.[1] The ten locks are 9 feet (2.7 m) x 110 feet (34 m) x 300 feet (91 m) the same dimension as the locks on the Mississippi.[2][3] Under construction for twelve years by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Tennessee–Tombigbee Waterway was completed in December 1984 at a total cost of nearly $2 billion."

Opponents of the project, primarily northern Democrat senators, decried it as a prime example of wasteful spending.

Nonetheless, Stennis -- a long tenured and powerful force in the Senate -- was undeterred in his support and kept pushing to have the project finished. As part of that push, he proposed a slight routing change, which he contended would shorten the construction mileage and, thereby, save money.

We received at tip that the rerouting would take the waterway through some rather large parcels of land that Stennis had been purchasing through "straw men" who were listed on land sales records as the buyers.

Our investigation of the tip took nearly two months to complete and involved the examination of hundreds of pages of land records, scores of interviews and weeks of fact checking. In the end, we had developed what we felt was ironclad proof of the allegation.

The reporter on the project managed to wangle an extensive interview with Stennis -- not a man given to freely talking under pressure to the press -- in which he finally acknowledged that some, but not all, of the land purchases had been made by others on his behalf. Stennis, however, contended that he didn't realize that the land purchased rather cheaply was along the path of the proposed route -- land the right of way though which would have to be bought at a considerably higher price by the government to complete the waterway and the balance of which could vastly increase in value because it would border the Tenn-Tom when completed.

Knowing that we would have to employ extreme caution in publishing this bombshell, I personally handled the first edit on the long and highly detailed story, then passed it along to the city editor for a second edit and took it back for a personal final edit. In the process, we exercised great care to make certain that a quick synopsis of Stennis' response appeared high in the story. After my final edit, I passed the story on to our best copy editor to read it, prepare it for publication and write a headline.

While doing his read, the copy editor inserted an inappropriate, sarcastic note in bold, highlighted italics and then passed it along to the news editor with the assumption that he would get a chuckle out of the insertion and then remove it before sending the story to typesetting. Well, you know what the say about the word "assume."

For whatever reason -- likely a brain burp brought on by deadline pressures -- the news editor failed to remove the note.

So, when the story was published, the high-up paragraph containing the synopsis of Stennis' response read like this:

"The senator acknowledged that some, but not all, of the more recent land purchases made along the proposed path of the waterway had been made by others on his behalf. However, he said he was 'totally unaware' that the land being bought was along the proposed route. (Can you believe this lying sack of shit.)"

OOPS!

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(Please note that I have made a correction in this post. Initially I identified Sen. John Stennis as "R-Miss." Actually he was one of the southern senators who never switched parties, I had forgotten that. He should have been and now is identified as D-Miss. My apologies.)