August 18, 2017

A big paper just wrote about me. Unpleasant experience.

 

My friend Margo Bennett came and gave me a copy She thought it was great. That's the problem--readers think newspapers are always right.

My friend Margo Bennett came and gave me a copy. She thought it was a great story. That’s the problem–readers think newspapers are  100% accurate . (Sorry about the pink hue.)

Newport Beach, CA — I was interviewed by the Orange Coast Register here for a big feature about me. Its focus would be my full hitch in Ukraine as a Peace Corps Volunteer. And my becoming the oldest of the nearly 8,000 in service in 74 countries at that time. I turned 80 over there.

I looked forward to reading the story. Oh, boy, what a disappointment.

I’ve written many features. Have been the interviewer countless times.  Now I’d be the interviewee. I’ve been through this opposite role a few times. But the Register would be the biggest paper yet. It has a fine reputation. I was confident. Delighted I had been chosen.

Why? I write books which I sell. And give public talks. So I welcome good publicity. And the Register’s circulation is up there in the six figures! Is the 19th biggest paper in the U.S. at the moment, I believe, and climbing, which is surprising these days. Most are declining.

Besides, I like reading nice things about myself. Who doesn’t?

I’ve found that being written about is an iffy process. You have to brace yourself for the results. Only once have I found the outcome excellent. I was optimistic about the job the Register would do. I wound up dismayed.

The writer was David Whiting, a seasoned, award-winning journalist. His work often makes Page I, I have loved his work. I looked forward to meeting him and having him write me up.

He came and we sat and talked at milady Annabelle’s dining table more than two hours. That’s a long interview, believe me. He was likable, savvy, and sympathetic. He was business-like but I was a fellow journalist and that seemed to make a difference. Well, my impression. I was sorry when he said, “Sorry, have to go!” I felt good about our encounter.

One thing he told me stuck with me. He said he writes four pieces a week, and “nobody should ever commit to four a week!”

I understood. I was a busy feature writer on a big paper, and I’ve written features aplenty for various media since then. I’m still writing features.

I must tell you that a feature that you read in a newspaper is just the tip of the iceberg.

You never get to see the eight ninths of the iceberg under water. The research. The interviewing. The continual wondering, “Do I have this right? Am I exaggerating, distorting, overlooking something significant? Am I giving this the proper tone?”

My features have invariably focused on good people. But a few times I’ve gotten the feeling I wasn’t hearing the whole story. I might suspect something: a bankruptcy, a time in jail, a criminal conviction, something scandalous.

I wouldn’t ask about such possibilities bluntly. I’d say, “Is there anything else that I should know about—something that might be embarrassing if it comes up later, after this story is out?”  The standard answer was, “No, no, no!” But I felt I had to ask.

One time long ago a publicly elected official did say to me, “Yeah, I served jail time!”  That was Andrew “Bossy” Gillis, the colorful mayor of Newburyport, Mass. But that was known to me. That was one reason I made a 120-mile trip to seek him out. He took pride in running the city from the jail!

David—that’s how I addressed Mr. Whiting in our talk and in emails—told me that he was limited to 1,000 words. And I understood that. Space is a newspaper IS limited.

But he also said that the Register has an online edition (what paper doesn’t nowadays?), and the feature would appear in that, too. Pixels don’t cost anything, so I felt extra words would be no problem for that edition at least. Maybe he could convince an editor to okay the longer length for the print edition.

At the end of our talk, he surprised me when he said, “I will send you a fact-check copy.” In other words, would let me see an advance copy of what he wrote.

To me that was extraordinary. In my day, we never let the subject see the story ahead of time. Why? Often that resulted in problems. Besides, that was “the policy,” and we had to live with that. The possibility of factual error was enormous, of course. What to do?

Be thorough in the interviewing, of course. If I came up with a doubt during the writing, I would contact the subject again, sometimes in person, sometimes by phone. I’d never show my story. I would describe it, and then check every fact.   “Are you 34, as I say you are? Did you graduate from MIT? Or attend MIT? You’ve been married twice?” And so on.

If I was told I had made a mistake, I’d correct it, of course. Mistakes happen. I’d do my best to get everything right. This is still the way I do it.

David sent me his draft to be fact-checked. And gosh, I appreciated that. It had mistakes. Interviewing IS challenging. It’s easy to misunderstand. Easy to jump to improper conclusions.

It’s important for me to make another point. Email is making this process of checking so much easier. Such a back-and-forth process was impossible in my big-newspaper days.

So I made the corrections for David. Sometimes it necessitated re-writing a sentence for better context. And I exceeded the 1,000-word limit. I admit it. Why? Some features of a certain scale cannot be written in just 1.000 words. It takes more words. I felt guilty about the longer length but I wanted the story to be right.

My first corrected version hit 2,000 words! I spent enormous time chopping and got it down to 1,500. It was still longer than he wanted. And I emailed that to him. And hoped for the best.

~ ~ ~ ~

As it turned out, I got to see the Register’s on-line version before the print version.

Right away I liked the friendly tone of the story. And David writes in a captivating style. Overall his piece was complimentary. Very, very nice.

But I was appalled, too.  There were stunning mistakes.

For some reason the online and print versions had different headlines. One said I was nearly arrested in Ukraine! I did have an encounter with cops one bad winter night. They thought I was drunk. I quickly convinced them that I was not. And then they helped me—I was banged up and they drove me home! Being “nearly arrested” was a huge editorial jump that was unwarranted. And it’s that detail that was selected for the headline!

The other had a headline that said. “Adventures with Russian Police.” They weren’t Russian. They were Ukrainian! And they weren’t ”adventures.” They were a single incident.

And he had me being born in Quebec. A gross error. My parents had emigrated from Quebec. Met and married in the U.S. I was born in Rhode Island. Even conceived in Rhode Island. So, I became an American with my first breath—readers might have concluded I had Canadian citizenship.

I immediately explained this to David in an email. One thing I said was, “In my day, headlines were never written by the writer. They were written by an editor, If that is still the case, I can’t pin these headline mistakes on you.”

I also told him I enjoyed the tone of his story, loved his easy writing style, appreciated our fine and long talk together, and appreciated his scheduling the story for a Sunday, when the Register reaches its greatest number of readers.

Some corrections he did make, but not others. Strange.

In my closing sentence, I said, “Maybe it happened because you complained how difficult it is to write four columns a week. Maybe you should ask to be cut back to three.”

~ ~ ~ ~

In an email back, he told me that he had deleted my being born in Quebec from the online version.  And he gave me his home office number, which I appreciated.

I called him a couple of times without reaching him. I mentioned this in an email, and within five minutes he called me. I thanked him and was pleasant. I wanted to understand why the errors. No intention of blasting him.

But quickly he lambasted me for failing to do what he asked, which was simply to fact-check the draft he showed me, period. And for adding so many additional words.

He said, “I have had it with you!”

He didn’t yell at me, but he was angry and cutting. He resisted letting me make my points. I had a hard time squeezing them in. He made me feel that I was the one who had screwed up.

It ruined my day. I did find out that he did not write the bad headlines. That was good news. But what sloppy copy-editing!

~ ~ ~ ~

Yet the experience was a good one in a strange way. How? It made me wonder whether over the years I had written something erroneous and offensive about some of my subjects. Did I hurt them and spoil their day? Maybe they never had the gumption to bring it to my attention.

Again I say, journalism isn’t easy.

I resolved to be even more cautious in the future.

Milady Annabelle suggested I ask the Register to make corrections. I didn’t do that. The corrections get made in brief paragraphs in tiny corners of the paper. Sometimes days later. There is no catching up.

Why did the errors upset me so much? Two reasons.

The first is that in journalism, facts are all-important. Readers will say, “I read it in the paper!” They believe that the paper has the infallibility of the Pope. Journalists must make sure they get things right!

The second reason is that what a newspaper prints lives on long afterward. We toss out the newspaper at the end of the day, don’t we? Well, not always.  When we find something big in it or important, we cut it out and save it. Dad’s obituary, for instance. A paragraph about you graduating from college, and magna cum laude. Such items will make it into your scrapbook for sure.

I’ve run into people who have said I interviewed them 15 years ago, 20 years ago. I can’t remember their names! They remember the details of my story! Can you imagine saving an article with gross mistakes? Such as David’s?

And because of the Internet and Google and Bing and other search engines, errors can live on in perpetuity. They’re always there. And errors can multiply like rabbits, popping up here and there. David’s mentioning I was born in Quebec is a tidbit that could surface time and again. Maybe in an obituary about me in some media someday.

I’ll tell you a story. My newspaper, the Worcester Telegram-Gazette, had a “morgue”—its specialized library. Every newspaper makes an effort to stash its output in its morgue. Morgue is a gruesome word, yes. So called I suppose, by some joker because that’s where newspaper articles were “preserved.”

Our morgue had professional full-time librarians with busy scissors. They clipped every newspaper every day—including its different editions covering different geographic areas—and filed the resulting clips in specific envelopes. They took pride in their work. Understood its importance.

Suppose I was planning to write a lengthy piece about Councilman Albert Politician. I’d go to our morgue, stand at the counter, and ask for everything about Albert Politician. And I’d be handed an envelope. It might be as thick as the phone book. It might be thin.

I’d cull through. Find an item about John’s wedding engagement. Another about his service in the war. Another about his driving a car that crashed into another at 1 a.m. on a Sunday morning.  Another that his daughter Rachel had been sworn in as a lawyer.  There might be photos also. I might see that, gosh, Joe had put on 50 pounds since that photo showing him becoming engaged. Got the idea?

Some of those items might be irrelevant for my present story. But maybe totally relevant. Having read all those clips gave me a much better start on my upcoming interview with Albert. Checking the morgue was the standard starting point for every significant story.

I have one more thing to say. There are two kinds of errors. Errors of commission. Those are the  kinds we usually think about. But also  errors of omission. An omission can be serious.

Example: David wrote that I would be heading home to Connecticut in a used van I  had bought here and have re-fitted as a simple camper. (I know this is news to you. I’ll be announcing all that soon.) And that I would be sleeping in my little camper on many nights and eating in it. Why? Because I didn’t want to spend money on motels and restaurants and things like that.

He was correct in saying that. I resented that it  made me sound like a cheapskate. But it’s only part of why I’m undertaking this big trip. It will last a number of weeks. Not sure how many. I don’t feel any need to rush. I will zig and zag. Gasoline alone will cost well over $1,000, There will be many other expenses. Stops at motels and restaurants every day would really add up. And I’m a vegetarian. That can be a problem in eating out.

Besides, my primary motive did not get mentioned. I enjoy camper travel!  Have traveled this way many times, sometimes on road trips of hundreds , even thousands of miles. Through a chunk of Europe, up and down and across the United States, up into Canada, twice deep into Mexico and across that country, the second all the way  from Acapulco on the Pacific across the huge mountains to  Veracruz on the Gulf of Mexico.. Then on up to Brownsville, Texas, and home. Many trips solo. Thousands of miles.

I’m doing it ndow because I want another adventure. I like adventures like this. In fact, I’m looking at it as maybe my last hurrah—I will be in my 85th year.

I’m doing it for the fun of it. And because I’m so curious. And enjoy meeting people of all kinds and seeing interesting sights. I mentioned errors of omission. This was a doozy.

~ ~ ~ ~

Now David’s article is certainly stored in the Register’s morgue (which is now digital, I’m sure, meaning on the hard drive of a computer.) That article will be the starting point for any Register journalist writing about me again.

But it’s also on the huge, incredible Computer Sphere—available to inquisitive readers anywhere in the world. Imagine! I love Quebec. I had a great solo vacation there last fall. But I was not born there! Maybe that tidbit still exists somewhere there on the Computer Sphere. It may re-surface in some story some day. Maybe in my obituary. Who knows?

So what can I do about this? Not much.

I’ve gone on at such length that I’m sure you want to see the published article for yourself. That’s natural.

At first I thought I would send you his fact-check copy with my corrections. But then it would be impossible for you to see what he wrote and what I changed and added. So I nixed that idea.

Then I decided to show you the published article, and I added the link to it: http://www.ocregister.com/articles/laplante-500834-corps-peace.html. Just as it appeared in black and white.

I was sure you’d enjoy it. David Whiting does have a wonderful touch, as I’ve said. And he did get most facts right.

However, I was wrong: you will not get access through that link. Here’s why. The Register now insists that you buy a subscription to its digital edition, or at least a day pass! No more free access!  But go ahead and try if you like.

The Register has been making big waves in journalism lately. Admirable waves! Instead of going with the flow of other daily papers, which because of declining advertising are cutting pages and laying off journalists en mass, And readers in huge numbers! It is doing the opposite. It is hiring journalists, adding pages, adding new sections.

The paper has new top leadership, two fairly young men with scant experience in newspaper publishing but dramatically successful in other fields. The paper is investing huge sums of $$$ in this gamble. The paper has much more content and is more interesting. And its huge gamble seems to be paying off. The Register is being scrutinized by many other papers, I’m sure. Maybe some will be inspired to do the same.

If this interests you, look into it via Google or Bing or other search engines. You’ll find tons to read about what the Register is attempting.

P.S. The photograph of me embedded in both versions of the story was taken by veteran staff photographer Jebb Harris. He did a great job. He has other photos of me in the digital version—they run in a slide show that you can run.

Everything is so different today. He came armed with a huge bagful of equipment and focused on me with a great big digital camera, it reminded of the cumbersome Speed Graphic camera that was standard in my early days.

And he shot away, click, click, click. One shot after another, some in the same pose, some in different poses. He must have clicked a hundred times, maybe more. I like all the photos that he posted. I’d love to see his rejects, too. Unfortunately, those photos are unavailable only when you pay to get to them, as I just explained.

~ ~ ~ ~

What have I learned from this bittersweet experience?

Journalism–our celebrated and so important “Fourth Estate”–is an enormously subjective profession. It’s not mathematics where every answer is right or wrong, with nothing in between. So much is in the eye of the journalist, and as a result in his pen. I’ve realized this since I started in the game so many years ago. This experience really brought it home.

It’s one thing to be the interviewer. It’s far different to be the interviewee.

It’s good to go through the experience of being interviewed and written about a few times. I have always thought that a surgeon should begin practicing only after going through the experience of having his appendix removed. A dentist after having a mandatory root canal. Now, a journalist after having been interviewed and written about. They’d be more understanding. Much more careful. Don’t you agree?

Most important, it has reminded me that we should always read newspapers and other media with a cautious eye. Many have noble ideals and impressive standards and codes of behavior. But still, all of us humans screw up at times.

It’s unwise to accept everything we read on blind faith. Many newspapers have impressive records of day-in and day-out reliability. But still. Nearly every newspaper admits and corrects mistakes regularly. I’m sure they never get to see some mistakes because nobody points them out.

I’d hate to go through another experience like this. Hope it doesn’t happen to you.

~ ~ ~ ~

Comments

  1. Joan Perrone says:

    Hi John, quite an experience. Don’t you generally find that reporters and journalists are not as detail-oriented as they once were? I find misspellings and grammar mistakes in the Courant all the time.

    And, John, although we have only met twice, through our e-mails I have felt that I have gotten to know you. Yes, you would save the motel bills if you didn’t drive home in a camper; but I’m sure that this is not the main reason that you are doing it. You are doing it for the joy and challenge of doing it, and it gives you the opportunity to meet many different people…people you might never have gotten to meet. Go for it, John. Happy traveling.

  2. jim davis says:

    the only person we have any control over is ourself if that. “)”) jim

Speak Your Mind

*