Archive for the ‘California’ Category

The case of the New York Times’ terror error

As the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, it isn’t hard to recall the politically fraught case of the 20-year-old bearded kid captured by US soldiers in Afghanistan in late 2001. But think the media got the whole story right on the so-called American Taliban?

Think again: Nearly a decade later, a rather extraordinary meltdown occurred during a recent San Francisco radio show focused on the case of John Walker Lindh. It happened thanks to 14 erroneous words printed in the New York Times in July 2002. My MediaBugs partner Scott Rosenberg and I just published a long piece in The Atlantic that traces the tale and explains its profound implications for news accuracy in the digital age. Here’s how it begins:

***

It is hard to describe the interview that took place on KQED’s Forum show on May 25, 2011, as anything other than a train wreck.

Osama bin Laden was dead, and Frank Lindh — father of John Walker Lindh, the “American Taliban” — had been invited on to discuss a New York Times op-ed piece he’d just published about his son’s 20-year prison sentence. The moment host Dave Iverson completed his introduction about the politically and emotionally charged case, Lindh cut in: “Can I add a really important correction to what you just said?”

Iverson had just described John Walker Lindh’s 2002 guilty plea as “one count of providing services to a terrorist organization.” That, Frank Lindh said, was simply wrong.

Yes, his son had pled guilty to providing services to the Taliban, in whose army he had enlisted. Doing so was a crime because the Taliban government was under U.S. economic sanctions for harboring Al Qaeda. But the Taliban was not (and has never been) classified by the U.S. government as a terrorist organization itself.

This distinction might seem picayune. But it cut to the heart of the disagreement between Americans who have viewed John Walker Lindh as a traitor and a terrorist and those, like his father, who believe he was a fervent Muslim who never intended to take up arms against his own country.

That morning, the clash over this one fact set host and guest on a collision course for the remainder of the 30-minute interview. The next day, KQED ran a half-hour Forum segment apologizing for the mess and picking over its own mistakes.

KQED’s on-air fiasco didn’t happen randomly or spontaneously. The collision was set in motion nine years before by 14 erroneous words in the New York Times.

This is the story of how that error was made, why it mattered, why it hasn’t been properly corrected to this day — and what lessons it offers about how newsroom traditions of verification and correction must evolve in the digital age.

***

Read the whole thing here in The Atlantic. We reexamined the complicated Lindh case and conducted interviews with Frank Lindh, reporters and editors at the New York Times and KQED, and experts on media accuracy to get to the bottom of what turned out to be a fascinating case study.

Bonus link: Apparently the New York Times is not the only major news outlet with a Lindh error lurking in its digital archive.

Lake Mead’s dwindling waters

The future is looking parched for the roughly 30 million Americans who rely on the Colorado River, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal. Denizens of Las Vegas, Phoenix and Los Angeles, this especially means you:

Water managers warn that Lake Mead, the West’s largest and most important reservoir, remains perilously near the level of 1,075 feet at which the U.S. Secretary of the Interior would likely declare a water shortage, for the first time in the nearly century-old history of the Colorado River system. Such a shortage would parch Nevada, Arizona and California with severe water-use restrictions. There alone, some 20 million people depend on Lake Mead’s supplies.

Despite this year’s rain-soaked winter and a modest rise in the lake, the region still faces a deep deficit from a 12-year drought: “Lake Mead’s water level now stands at 1,096 feet, near its lowest point since the reservoir began filling in the 1930s and 110 feet below when the drought began in 1999, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The lake last rose in 2005.”

Statistics can be elusive. One of the best ways to realize the change is from directly on the lake itself. Last August I took a houseboat trip with some friends on Lake Mead, where I snapped some photos showing the drop in the water line. The lake is enormous — but so is the space no longer filled with water:



In the west we’ve peered into the future, which is now. It is conservation.

(According to the water footprint “calculator” linked above, which uses criteria ranging from shower times to car washing to meat consumption, my household of two rates at approximately 12 percent below the daily average for water consumption across American households. Not bad, though as I suspected there’s still room for improvement. The site suggests specific areas for potential progress based on your questionnaire answers.)

Lara Logan story botched by LA Weekly

On February 15th the LA Weekly published a post by Simone Wilson under the headline “Lara Logan, CBS Reporter and War Zone ‘It Girl,’ Raped Repeatedly Amid Egypt Celebration.” The opening paragraph stated that Logan had been “brutally and repeatedly raped” — with that phrase emphasized in bold type.

The LA Weekly apparently got the story wrong. Logan had suffered a horrifying sexual assault while working in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, disturbing details of which came to light in subsequent media coverage. But according to reporting from three different news outlets — The Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, and IOL News of South Africa (Logan’s native country) — Logan was not raped. Those articles were cited in a MediaBugs error report posted last week by Tracy Clark-Flory, a journalist who covers women’s issues. (Disclosure: Clark-Flory is a friend and former colleague of mine at Salon.) Since the report was posted, MediaBugs sent three emails to LA Weekly editors seeking a response. We’ve received none.

It’s understandable how a news organization might have made this kind of mistake; while many initial reports about Logan’s attack adhered to a statement from CBS News describing “a brutal and sustained sexual assault and beating,” LA Weekly wasn’t the only outlet to make the leap to “rape.” (See Jen Phillips’ post on MotherJones.com for more on this.)

Still, it’s troubling that more than three weeks later the LA Weekly has not posted a correction on its piece, or explained why it believes no correction is warranted. To say that accuracy is important to a news organization’s credibility is stating the obvious — but it seems particularly crucial when public understanding is distorted around a story as emotionally and politically fraught as Logan’s.

Here’s one small anecdote showing why. Last weekend I described the issue to a friend who is well-read on current events. He said that he’d seen the LA Weekly piece, among others. When I told him that Logan apparently had not been raped, he was surprised — he’d understood that to be a central fact of the story.

The LA Weekly’s silence on the matter could in part be due to the withering criticism it came under for Wilson’s piece, which ran with a curvaceous photo of Logan and used various sexualized descriptions of her, including “firecracker” and “gutsy stunner.” Newsrooms tend to circle the wagons when under attack.

That uproar, ultimately, was a matter of editorial judgment and (brutally bad) taste, one that LA Weekly editors may or may not choose to address at some point. (Wilson did so, to some degree, in an update to her post on Feb. 16.)

But this issue is more straightforward. By not addressing the apparent factual mistakes brought to its attention, the LA Weekly not only damages its reputation but also does a disservice to Logan’s story, which has cast a powerful light on a previously underreported problem faced by female journalists. The uncorrected errors take a piece that already comes across as insensitive and make it seem irresponsible, too.

[Note: This post first appeared on PBS.org's MediaShift blog.]

UPDATED: It seemed worthwhile to include this subsequent exchange I had with an anonymous reader in the PBS MediaShift comments thread:

Anonymous: “I agree with you for the most part, however… no named source has yet contradicted their account. It could be that Lara was raped. We still don’t know.”

My reply: “True, the details of what happened still aren’t entirely clear. But since all the evidence we do have points to Logan not being raped, reasonable readers have a right to raise questions — and they deserve an answer from the LA Weekly. Perhaps the Weekly knows something it hasn’t shared, though the piece appeared to include no original reporting and that seems unlikely. Regardless, if the public raises legitimate questions the onus is on the newsroom to support — or correct — its account.”

UPDATED, 3/15/11: LA weekly has since posted a correction notice stating that it “erroneously interpreted CBS’ report of what happened to Logan on February 11, 2011.”

As of this update the original article’s headline and repeated references to “rape” in the text remain unchanged.

For additional details, see the updated mediabug.

Porn at the Pentagon, Glenn Beck’s gunman, MILF rebels and ancient mullets

Inspired by a robust number of clicks from the first three installments, herewith is another bundle of microblogging, back by popular demand! I’ll return to lengthier writing in this space in the near future; for now I’m occupied with our preparations to expand MediaBugs into a national project (this fall), trying to scale something of a brick wall at Bloomberg, and working on a couple of other research & writing projects. Meanwhile, I think I’ve discovered a handy addendum to the maxim: The art of writing is rewriting, indeed, but the art of writing also is turning off your Internet access for a little while. Until next time… enjoy.

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Is it “douchebag” or “douche bag”? @LoriFradkin has the answer! http://bit.ly/cafs3d about 1 hour ago

oh, lovely: child porn at the Pentagon, US intel agencies “at risk of blackmail, bribery, and threats” http://bit.ly/dxZDaB about 1 hour ago

you can bet the farm this crazed Calif. shooter watched Glenn Beck and/or Fox News. See quotes from his mom: http://bit.ly/cIKMf2 11:02 AM Jul 19th via web

Told ya so! re Oakland gunman likely inspired by Glenn Beck: http://bit.ly/axh2kL Wed Jul 21 14:01:48 2010

how to stop gorging on digital information: http://bit.ly/crZRZ4 Wed Jul 21 08:33:11 2010

once the heart of the Mayan empire, now a “rapidly deforesting mini-narco-state” http://nyti.ms/dD45S4 9:10 AM Jul 19th

some pretty f–@%*! funny Blagojevich ringtones: http://bit.ly/cOg4VW 11:46 AM Jul 16th

97-year-old stoner seriously bummed out by Vallejo authorities: http://bayc.it/p2P/ 10:24 AM Jul 15th

the Moro Islamic Liberation Front: a rebel group with a headline-grabbing name! http://bit.ly/bbFDtM 10:01 AM Jul 15th

Steve Carrell and Paul Rudd take it to the hole on Lebron and Jim Gray http://youtu.be/KtIaMr2hGeI 9:51 AM Jul 15th

Utah one-ups Arizona on anti-immigrant fear mongering http://nyti.ms/b30CfF 10:38 PM Jul 14th

but U.S. still in critical condition RT @nprpolitics Cheney Recuperating From Heart Surgery http://n.pr/dwbwVu 2:37 PM Jul 14th

CBS News: The Netherlands Win World Cup! (by a score of “SCORE to SCORE”) http://bit.ly/aon754 3:14 PM Jul 12th

apparently the mullet is ancient history: http://bit.ly/d4cs1p 9:19 AM Jul 12th

Lots more straight from the source, right here.

Hard to get a fix

Just about every professional journalist under the sun will tell you that accuracy and transparency in news reporting are essential to a media organization’s credibility. It would seem to follow, then, that most newsrooms would make tracking and correcting errors a priority — particularly in the digital age, in which they have unprecedented capability to interact with the public. But that’s not at all the case right now. Over at MediaBugs, Scott Rosenberg and I have just published our first major report on the state of corrections practices across the Bay Area news media. What we found will not boost public confidence:

The results of MediaBugs’ first survey of Bay Area media correction practices show that 21 out of 28 news sites examined — including many of the region’s leading daily newspapers and broadcast news outlets — provide no corrections link on their websites’ home pages and article pages. The websites for 17 of the 28 news organizations examined have no corrections policy or substantive corrections content at all.

Sites that do offer corrections-related content frequently make it relatively difficult to find: It is located two or three obscure clicks into the site, or requires visitors to use the site’s search function. Once located, the corrections content is, in most cases, poorly organized and not easily navigated.

In the above report, you can see the specific rundown for most major news outlets headquartered in or regularly covering the Bay Area (including some major national outlets). We’re not just looking to highlight these problems; we also hope to encourage news organizations to fix them — and the good news here is that the necessary improvements are pretty easy to make. To that end, we’ve also published a companion piece outlining best practices in error reporting and corrections.

Also see Scott’s excellent post over at MediaShift Idea Lab for more insight into why news sites have stopped short in this realm — and where we think they should be headed, most ambitiously. (Nutshell: Adding a “Report an error” button as a standard feature on every news page online. The promotion of which is a project in our pipeline.)

And be sure to check out the fun little movie we just released (with the help of our talented friends at Beep Show) — the hard-hitting yet heart-warming story of MediaBugs, as told by men in shorts.

AP’s complicated Seinfeld episode

Recently a MediaBugs user reported that an Associated Press story had misidentified the “Seinfeld” character George Costanza as Jerry’s “neighbor” on the show. Eventually the AP’s west coast entertainment editor, Steve Loeper, responded to an inquiry about the matter, and the AP subsequently decided to publish a correction.

It was a positive outcome, but here’s the rub: Getting to it involved no less than contacting five different people, sending eight emails and making three phone calls — and it took more than three weeks to get a result.

Indeed, one of our early observations with MediaBugs has been that reporting an error to news organizations — even (or is it especially?) large, reputable ones — can be difficult and time-consuming.

When the “Seinfeld” bug appeared on our site on April 28th, I searched online for a specific channel through which to contact the AP regarding errors. I couldn’t find one. (Apparently one does not exist; more on that in a minute.) The AP story had no byline but was datelined Los Angeles, so I looked up the LA bureau and sent an email to the news editor there, Brian Melley. Having been a news editor myself at a busy national media outlet, I knew his inbox was likely to be inundated. I followed up with another email two days later. A couple days after that I tried calling, and emailed again on the heels of that. Then I also tried emailing the LA bureau chief, Anthony Marquez.

Next, I thought to contact an acquaintance who works as a reporter for the AP in Washington, to see if I was even poking in the right place. I learned from her that the news service has a decentralized system for corrections; the AP reporter and/or editor on a specific story apparently is responsible for handling any potential correction. I had been poking in the right place, if to no avail.

Next I tried emailing another person I knew of who used to work in the AP’s LA bureau, to ask if there was anyone else there I might try. He suggested contacting Loeper. After a couple of emails and a voicemail, Loeper responded in timely and good-humored fashion, and we were on our way to a correction. (While the bug ostensibly had been posted by a “Seinfeld” devotee, Loeper subsequently told me via email that the AP “got the definitive word from Rick Ludwin, the NBC executive in charge of the ‘Seinfeld’ series back in the ‘90s, who noted that Kramer and Newman lived in Jerry’s building, but George had his own apartment in another building and also lived with his parents for a time.”)

In the end, AP did right by the error. It wasn’t an earth-shattering one. But rather than getting into whether it’s important for such errors to be corrected (see here and here for why we believe it is), a simple question instead: why does it have to be so hard to get an error fixed?

You can almost hear Jerry working it into one of those nightclub monologues he used to close the show with: “What’s the deal anyway with these newsroom people? You see a simple mistake, so you try to let them know — you email and you call, and you call and you email, and… nothing. Really? What’s the deal with that?” (Cue laugh track.)

[Cross-posted to the MediaBugs blog.]

MediaBugs: Where you fix the news!

I’m excited to announce that we’ve opened the doors today to MediaBugs, a new project intended to help improve the quality of news coverage in the San Francisco Bay Area. If you see an error or problem in a news report that you think needs to be corrected, please come on over and submit a bug report! From there, we’ll help start an open conversation between you and the journalist(s) behind the story, with the aim of getting the issue resolved.

For more about the thinking behind MediaBugs and how it works, check out this report from Mallary Jean Tenore today at Poynter Online. Craig Silverman (of “Regret the Error” fame and one of our project advisers) tells Tenore that “fact checking is becoming one of the great American pastimes of the Internet age.” If so, we should soon have plenty of fresh bug reports for the Bay Area public and media community to consider. As Tenore points out, research by Scott Maier, a journalism scholar from University of Oregon, shows that fewer than 2 percent of errors in daily newspapers ever get corrected. (And there are reams of errors, studies show, in newspapers and across all manner of news media.)

We also hope that journalists will benefit from MediaBugs. We’ve met with many of them around town over the last couple of months to introduce the project, and have been pleased to encounter lots of interest and positive response. Not only do we think MediaBugs offers newsrooms a handy new tool for tracking error reports, we also hope it will help them win greater confidence among their readerships. As Tenore suggests in her piece:

While running a correction might make journalists cringe, doing so can actually make them look good. Maier said public opinion research shows that the public tends to trust the media more when they see corrections being made. In that sense, correction-tracking software like MediaBugs, Maier and Silverman said, can help journalists gain credibility.

And that could only be a good thing, with said credibility having tanked of late.

For some great related reading, also see Silverman’s own recent piece for CJR, in which he notes that corrections aren’t just for journalists and news organizations anymore: “Anyone who generates content or shares information will inevitably encounter a moment when they have to correct a mistake. Thanks to the Internet, mobile devices and other technologies, more and more people are engaging in content creation—and the act of correction.”

UPDATED: More on the project launch from Megan Garber at Nieman Journalism Lab. Also, here’s where you can follow MediaBugs on Twitter.

UPDATED, 10/27/10: MediaBugs has gone national.

Tactile porn, Sarah Palin and a cool brown dwarf

Loyal readers: Until I can return to writing in this space more frequently, here below is another microblogging fix to bridge the gap. (Complete with shamelessly SEO’d headline.) At the moment I’m immersed in the launch of MediaBugs, working on a magazine profile of comic actor Amy Poehler and continuing research for a long-term project on Haida Gwaii. And running around quite a bit with our very active Vizsla pup, Renzo. (Did I mention—yikes!—also planning a wedding?) Meantime, if you have an appetite for more links beyond the below, follow the daily feed here.

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pornography for the blind: http://bit.ly/causwb about 3 hours ago
  
Sarah Palin is getting very rich http://bit.ly/aOwfJy about 3 hours ago

James Cameron, eco-warrior: http://j.mp/AvatLula Heartening, but does he have the political skills to be effective? http://nyti.ms/blKA2T about 21 hours ago

via St. Louis Post-Dispatch, revelations of J. Edgar Hoover’s media obsession http://bit.ly/b0hDBd about 23 hours ago

GOP prepping for war on Obama’s next Supreme Court nom? http://n.pr/dwdQP1 Of course they are—beware talk otherwise: http://wp.me/prtei-oG about 24 hours ago via web
  
it’s true, I’ve been wanting to say this for a while: Cool Brown Dwarf Found Lurking http://bit.ly/d37n6w 9:55 AM Apr 12th via web

#Treme off to a good start, music alone worth the price of admission. Fun to see Kermit Ruffins still going strong at Vaughn’s… 11:23 PM Apr 11th via web

sexual abuse scandal haunting the Pope reaches the Bay Area: http://bit.ly/cHFqGb 4:17 PM Apr 9th via web

Essential reading for media: @dangillmor on NYT getting in bed with Apple over iPad http://bit.ly/drT4eo 10:25 PM Apr 8th via TweetDeck
  
How John McCain is short-selling his soul! http://bit.ly/ciaTsy (watch the whole thing) 9:39 AM Apr 8th via web

Once again in California, looks like it could be a Chinese railroad http://s.nyt.com/u/cqo 6:17 PM Apr 7th via API
  
this is a great dog story: http://nyti.ms/bXEAyN 2:28 PM Apr 6th via web

Doguccino

A brief and irrelevant diversion: Yesterday afternoon when grabbing a shot of caffeine at Epicenter, I had no choice but to admire the barista’s foam styling skills — a doguccino unsolicited, but a fine one nevertheless, constructed simply using the tip of a beverage thermometer:


If doguccino doesn’t do it for you, perhaps Doga does.

Robert Redford and the art of activism

Robert Redford usually draws media attention for his annual Sundance Film Festival in snowy Park City, where despite the accumulation of Hollywood hype he continues to champion the art of filmmaking. Less often remarked is his other great passion: the art of activism. Recently, Redford decided to make the Bay Area a new hub for his continuing work as a defender of social justice and the environment. Given the legacy of progressive politics in this region, it seems a natural choice for his new Redford Center, located in the heart of downtown Berkeley.

Earlier this month, during the center’s inaugural event at the Sundance Kabuki Theater in San Francisco, Redford honored two accomplished community leaders. Victor Diaz, the principal of Berkeley Technology Academy, spoke with a quiet kind of ferocity about his efforts to help at-risk minority kids get a better shot at education. Also impressive was teenager Avery Hale, who at age 13 started a project to deliver shoes to impoverished children in villages in Latin America and beyond.

Redford and Diaz conversing onstage, Feb. 4, in San Francisco. (Photo by Peter Klueger.)

Redford spoke at length about the crossroads of grassroots activism and the arts. At 73, he’s been at it for four decades. He made clear that his bet is now on those many decades his junior, emphasizing the creative potential among youth and “the small acts that lead to big results.” In considering where progressive change can come from, he pulled no punches about the “cartoon behavior” going on at present in Washington: “There’s not a whole lot to be optimistic about today, politically. You see how constipated it is at the top and nothing is getting done — it’s an embarrassment to this country. We’ve lost so much already, we’re losing more by the day.”

Global warming continues to trouble him — as it did in 1987, when he first took it on, traveling to the Soviet Union during Perestroika for a conference on the then relatively unknown issue. He recounted inviting a high-powered Soviet delegation to Sundance for further talks, which eventually resulted in a joint document, in 1989, aimed at reducing pollution. In hindsight, it marked both a high point and a low point. “It was too early,” Redford said. “I made a terrible mistake: I was naïve to think that it was such a verifiable document, that all I had to do was send it in to [the first] George Bush and Gorbachev. It was, ‘Thank you very much’ and stuffed into a drawer, and no one ever really heard about it.”

But Redford’s stark views on national and global politics were tempered by a focus on inspiration and action at the local level — the raison d’etre of the Redford Center — and ultimately his message was a warmer one of rebirth. He pointed to the youngest generation, including his grandchildren in the audience. “They’re the ones that are about to inherit what’s left of this earth,” he said, “and I sense that this new generation of young people coming on really does want to do something. And I hope they will.”

Big bake sale for Cary Tennis and King Kaufman

Around the turn of the year, two friends and former colleagues of mine at Salon, Cary Tennis and King Kaufman, were hit with serious health emergencies. In November, Cary announced in his beloved advice column that he was diagnosed with a rare cancer, sacral chordoma, and would have to undergo surgery, which took place on December 17th. Vividly and eloquently, he has been keeping friends and fans apprised of his situation on his Open Salon blog.

In early January, King was suddenly taken ill and hospitalized for a rare, devastating ailment, Guillain-Barré syndrome, the cause of which is essentially unknown. Fortunately, after three weeks in the hospital and a physical rehabilitation center, he is now back home with his wife and young kids, on his way to what his doctors say is likely to be a full recovery.

For most people nowadays, a serious health crisis inevitably brings with it some financial strain. Friends of Cary and King have rallied to put together a terrific auction on eBay, the proceeds of which will go toward supporting these two great guys through their difficult times. A throng of talented and accomplished Salon alumni have contributed: Dave Eggers, Zach Trenholm, Heather Havrilesky, Keith Knight, David Talbot, Scott Rosenberg, Kate Moses, Larry Smith and Laura Miller, to name a few. The array of items up for bid include signed first editions of books, photographs, paintings and other original artwork. More details about the project on this Web site set up by the talented and generous Mignon Khargie.

The auction begins on Tuesday, February 9, and runs through the rest of the week; please check it out here and bid on any of this great stuff in support of Cary and King.

And the Best Album of 2010 goes to…

How uninspired, all the obligatory end-of-year rehash — the Best of 2009 This and the Top 10 Yada-yada of That. It’s all so… last year. But, the good news: This dog from the future just did a quick dash to December 2010, and I’ve brought back with me the easy winner for the Best Album of Next Year. It’s already here.

One of the benefits of having your own blog (aside from some capacity for time travel) is that you can favor whatever you want, with impunity. Even so, that the acclaimed psychedelic-country-folk-rock band I See Hawks in L.A. are good friends of mine has nothing to do with the fact that their forthcoming album, “Shoulda Been Gold,” takes the aforementioned honor. Hands down. It’s a dazzling collection from their deep trove of music produced and performed over the past decade — a greatest hits record, as they like to put it, that contains no hits. It comes out officially on January 26 from Collector’s Choice Music, but you can be one of the first to get a hold of it right now, right here.

And you most definitely should. The album contains 17 tracks of vivid aural history, its harmonies and insights drawn from an American decade of relative desolation. The Hawks are one of the great original bands you shoulda heard by now, if you haven’t already. Don’t just take my word for it, you can look ‘em up on The Google: There have been volumes of critical acclaim for their four albums dating back to 2000, from the Los Angeles Times to Spin to USA Today. (The latter notably sidestepped cliché in praising the band’s “versatility, variety and power” and “intriguing dystopian science-fictional bent in the lyrics” — that is, this ain’t your garden variety country-rock band, folks.) There are cult favorite non-hits here such as “Humboldt” and “Highway Down,” but I’m particularly partial to several of the new and newly released tunes, among them the plaintive yet incandescent title track “Shoulda Been Gold” and the Cajun-inflected twirler “Laissez Les Bon Temps Roulet.” You’ll definitely start your new year out happy if you get your hands on this stuff.

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