Wednesday, December 24, 2008

We Regret the Error

Unlike Wall Street executives, journalists don't get $20 million bonuses for botching the job.

Instead, they are subjected to a sort of public flogging in the form of corrections that are displayed in print for all to see.

Some are minor. Others are so serious that the offending reporter might find himself working at Jiffe Lube the next week.

Whatever the case, we in the profession, while devoted to accuracy, find some dark humor in the corrections that appear in the publications for which we toil.

And this column, being no stranger to dark humor, has traditionally marked the passing of the year with some of more noteworthy mea culpas from the past 12 months. Many have been collected by Craig Silverman, a Montreal freelance writer and author a book called "Regret the Error." Others were sent to me by fellow aficionados.

We present them for your reading pleasure, hopefully in correct form:

Early exit: Sportswriter Dave Pratt offered up this explanation after he was found plagerizing noted Sports Illustrated and ESPN columnist Rick Reilly: "It was a Saturday and I wanted to get out of [the office] before noon."

Did They Get Anything Right?: In articles published on 23 and 26 May 2008, we gave the impression that Mr. (David) Gest had contracted a sexually transmitted infection and alleged that he had Liza Minnelli's dog killed without her knowledge. This was wrong. David Gest has never had a sexually transmitted infection and did not have Ms. Minnelli's dog killed. (Daily Mail, UK).

Current Events: The compilers and suppliers of our On This Day column deserve to learn a lot more about electric execution. The recidivist column wrongly stated that the first electric chair execution took place on July 7, 1890. In fact, it was Wednesday, August 6, 1890 in New York - ironically then known as the Electric City of the Future - that wife-killer William Kemmler became the first man executed in an electric chair. Although Dr George C. Fell said Kemmler "never suffered a bit of pain," a reporter who also witnessed the execution wrote in the New York Herald the next day that "strong men fainted and fell like logs upon the floor." (The Guardian, UK).

Current Events, Part 2: We said that, in the American TV drama "24," Jack Bauer, the counter-terrorism agent, resorted to electrocution to extract information. You cannot extract information from someone who has been electrocuted because they are dead. (The Guardian, UK).

Spell Check: In yesterday's column about badminton, I misspelled the name of Guatemalan player Kevin Cordon. I apologize. In my defense, I want to note that in the same column I correctly spelled Prapawadee Jaroenrattanatarak, Poompat Sapkulchananart and Porntip Buranapraseatsuk. So by the time I got to Kevin Cordon, my fingers were exhausted. (Dave Barry).

Did He Enjoy the Film? A film review on Sept. 5 about "Save Me" confused some characters and actors. It is Mark, not Chad, who is sent to the Genesis House retreat for converting gay men to heterosexuality. (Mark is played by Chad Allen; there is no character named Chad). The hunky fellow resident is Scott (played by Robert Gant), not Ted (Stephen Lang). And it is Mark and Scott - not Chad and Ted - who partake of cigarettes and "furtive man-on-man action." (New York Times).

In the Pink: We have been asked to point out that Stuart Kennedy, of Flat E, 38 Don Street, Aberdeen, who appeared at Peterhead Sheriff Court on Monday, had 316 pink, frilly garters confiscated not 316 pink, frilly knickers. (Press and Journal, UK).

Family Values: Our article last Tuesday...pictured Mr. Eriksson in a hotel restaurant with a young lady. We wrongly assumed that the lady was an admirer and suggested that he was fondling her. In fact the lady was Lina, Mr Eriksson's daughter, with whom he was sharing a normal fatherly embrace. (Daily Star, UK).

Choice Words: A photo caption in the Oct. 22 Style section incorrectly referred to Bill O'Reilly as a "right-wing pundit." The Fox News host presents himself as an independent. (Washington Post). Note that the correction uses the term "presents himself" indicating a certain level of disagreement with O'Reilly's view of himself. Which reminds us of this classic:

An Oct. 1 editorial referred to Washington state Rep. Cathy McMorris, R-Colville as a "classy candidate." This page regrets the error. (Lewiston Morning Tribune).

Skip the Salad Course: Celebrity chef Antony Worrall Thompson has apologized after accidentally recommending a potentially deadly plant in organic salads. The chef and TV presenter said in a magazine article that the weed henbane, also known as stinking nightshade, made an excellent addition to summertime meals. Henbane, or Hyoscyamus niger, is toxic and can cause hallucinations, convulsions, vomiting and in extreme cases death. (Reuters).

Dangers of Technology: The American Family Association's OneNewsNow site has a standard practice of using the word "homosexual" instead of "gay." They even set up a filter to automatically make the change. This didn't serve ONN well when a sprinter named Tyson Gay made news at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials. He suddenly became Tyson Homosexual when the site's filter got a hold of an AP story. The same thing happened several year's ago at a different publication when a filter changed the name of the airplane which dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima to the "Enola Homosexual."

Dangers of Technology, Part 2: "Please note the important 4th writethru to SCOC-Cromwell which corrects the name of the former Supreme Court judge to Michel Bastarache, which had been changed to Bastard by a spellcheck error." (Canadian Press).
Food for Thought: The source who told us last week about Michelle Obama getting lobster and caviar delivered to her room at the Waldorf-Astoria must have been under the influence of a mind-altering drug. She was not even staying at the Waldorf. We regret the mistake, and our former source is going to regret it, too...(New York Post).

Last But Not Least: Readers of the New Hampshire-based Valley News couldn't help but shake their heads. On July 21, the paper's lead story reported Barack Obama had called the situation in Afghanistan "precarious," but the biggest news was far above the fold: the paper had misspelled its own name. People were reading the Valley Newss.
"Readers may have noticed that the Valley News misspelled its own name on yesterday's front page," read a subsequent editor's note. "Given that we routinely call on other institutions to hold themselves accountable for their mistakes, let us say for the record: we sure feel silly." (Craig Silverman).

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Goodby to American Cars

Like many Americans, I am a certified car nut.

When I was young, I spent many a happy hour with pencil and paper doodling cars of my own design. When I got older, I'd ride my bike to the new car showrooms to pick up the glossy literature on the latest models every fall.

When I turned 16, my father bought what was charitably called a "business coupe" meaning one sun visor, no radio. It gave basic transportation a bad name. But I could get my fingernails dirty working on it to my great joy.

It is not surprising, therefore, that I've owned a lot of cars over the years. Among them: Fords, Chevys, Buicks and Chryslers.

Every one of them was a beauty in the eye of this beholder. And every one of them was flawed.

My first Ford burned oil by the barrel. The Chevy came equipped with a assembly line worker's coffee cup still wedged into the engine compartment. The Buick ran hot even when it was going downhill in neutral. The Chrysler was oversized and underpowered.

My experience was the rule rather than the exception. It didn't matter. We loved our cars. They meant freedom. They meant status.

We Americans were taught that if you worked hard you would get ahead and when you got ahead, you could reap life's rewards. What better way to show off those rewards than with some Big Iron from Detroit.

They were chromed, they were sleek. Even though they were built on the philosophy of planned obsolescence, we as a nation of automotive junkies kept coming back for another fix.

Now we stand on a precipice. The Big Three automakers, after years of mismanagement, are in Washington begging for money.

If they don't get a cash injection soon, they could fail, throwing millions out of work, something this economy can't tolerate.

Many experts put the price tag for saving Detroit at between $75 billion and $125 billion.

As dire as the consequences may be, many in Congress are taking the Rhett Butler approach. Frankly, they don't give a damn.

You could make the point that we should. Aside from the economic conseqeunces, Ford, General Motors and Chyrsler are American as apple pie. Preserving them is almost like preserving a part of our country's heritage. It seems like the patriotic thing to do.

Do I care enough to rush out and buy an American car? No. Most of them still don't measure up to the imports. Besides, it wouldn't make any difference.

The automakers are damned by their failure to innovate, cursed by a lack of vision, hogtied by outlandish union contracts.

Thomas L. Friedman, writing in the New York Times, gave another reason for the collapse of the industry.

"General Motors could make money only by selling big, gas-guzzling S.U.V.s and trucks. Therefore, instead of focusing on making money by innovating around fuel efficiency, productivity and design, GM threw way too much energy into lobbying and maneuvering to protect its gas guzzlers."

General Motors, for their part, bought a full-page ad in the trade publication Automotive News, apologizing for its failures.

"While we're still the U.S. sales leader, we acknowledge we have disappointed you," the ad says. "At times we violated your trust by letting our quality fall below industry standards and our designs become lackluster. We have proliferated our brands and dealer network to the point where we lost adequate focus on our core U.S. market."

GM also says it "biased" its product to too heavily favor trucks and SUVs, and "we made commitments to compensations plans" that are unsustainable in today's auto industry. "We have paid dearly for these decisions, learned from them and are working to correct them."

I'm guessing it's too late.

The Japanese and European automakers have been filling the void for more than 30 years by providing reliable, fuel efficient cars to American consumers.

The imports, not Detroit, have become part of the American fabric. Who's won the last five Indy 500s? Honda, that's who. Who's building factories throughout the South? The Japanese and Koreans.

I didn't bat an eye when I traded my big old Chrysler in on a Datsun. Somebody had offered me an alternative to costly repairs and shoddy workmanship and threw in fuel economy as a bonus. It wasn't a hard decision to make.

Now, Americans will will be introduced to car companies like Tata from India and SAIC Motor Corp. and Guangzhou Automobile Group Co. from China. Undoubtedly, they will likely follow the Japanese model and build factories in the United States because of the cost of transporting fleets of automobiles across the Pacific.

I'll miss American cars. They were the visible manifestation of America's manufacturing muscle.

But it's hard to shed a tear over an industry that became so bloated and self satisifed that it let it all slip through their fingers.

Looking Ahead to the Past

"Never make predictions, especially about the future." --- Casey Stengal.

I don't buy watches from guys on street corners, don't by clothes from places called "warehouses" and don't bet on sports that are played on ice.

I also don't make predictions. At least not very often.

I made two in the past year. I predicted I would go on a diet and lose 20 pounds. I gained 10. I predicted Hillary Clinton would become president. She didn't even get to the Big Dance.

But that's small potatoes compared to some who dared to predict what 2008 would bring.

Consider this sampling culled from self-appointed crystal ball gazers:

"If [Hillary Clinton] gets a race against John Edwards and Barack Obama, she's going to be the nominee. Gore is the only threat to her...Barack Obama is not going to beat Hillary Clinton in a single Democratic primary. I'll predict that right now." William Kristol, Fox News.

I'm glad someone else bought into the Hillary bandwagon. But at least I recognized that Al Gore was yesterday's candidate.

"Peter writes: 'Should I be worried about Bear Stearns in terms of liquidity and get my money out of there?' No! No! No! Bear Stearns is fine! Do not take your money out. … Bear Stearns is not in trouble. I mean, if anything they're more likely to be taken over. Don't move your money from Bear! That's just being silly! Don't be silly!" Jim Cramer, host of CNBC's "Mad Money" who has been advertised as one of the most influential voices on Wall Street.

I don't know who Peter is but I hoped he learned to follow his own instincts when investing. Bear Stearns lost 90 per cent of its value before being sold to JP Morgan Chase at fire sale prices. Which leads me to believe that trusting the advice of a guy who is the Wall Street equivalent of Crazy Gideon seems like a bad idea.

"...The risks to maritime flows of oil are far smaller than is commonly assumed. First, tankers are much less vulnerable than conventional wisdom holds. Second, limited regional conflicts would be unlikely to seriously upset traffic, and terrorist attacks against shipping would have even less of an economic effect. Third, only a naval power of the United States strength could seriously disrupt oil shipments." -- Dennis Blair and Kenneth Lieberthal, Foreign Affairs.

That was before a group of Somali pirates in rubber boats hijacked a Saudi tanker containing 2 million barrels of oil. Back to the drawing boards.

"[A]nyone who says we're in a recession, or heading into one --- especially the worst one since the Great Depression --- is making up his own private definition of recession. Donald Luskin, The Washington Post, Sept. 14, 2008.

Luskin joined a host of other pundits who blamed the economic downturn on negativism and panic cooked up by the nation's media. I hope he didn't follow Jim Cramer's investment advice.

We can be thankful these gems from the psychic community did't pan out:

-Donald Trump loses a bet and shaves his head.

-A remake of "Gilligan's Island" will be pitched to Jim Carey and Jenny McCarthy. They both accept.

-Britney Spears gets pregnant joining her 16 year old sister.

While these gaffes are real eyebrow raisers, they don't begin to approach some classics from the past.

For example:

"Everything that can be invented has been invented." Charles H. Duell, an official at the US patent office, 1899.

"If anything remains more or less unchanged, it will be the role of women." David Riesman, American social scientist, 1967.

"It will be gone by June." Variety, passing judgement on rock 'n roll in 1955.

"Reagan doesn't have that presidential look." United Artists executive, rejecting Ronald Reagan as lead in 1964 film "The Best Man."

"With over 15 types of foreign cars already on sale here, the Japanese auto industry isn't likely to carve out a big share of the market for itself. " Business Week, August 2, 1968.

"Everyone acquainted with the subject will recognize it as a conspicuous failure." Henry Morton, president of the Stevens Institute of Technology, on Edison's light bulb, 1880.

"The horse is here to stay but the automobile is only a novelty,a fad." The president of the Michigan Savings Bank advising Henry Ford's lawyer not to invest in the Ford Motor Co., 1903.

"There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home." Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., maker of big business mainframe computers, arguing against the PC in 1977.

"Space travel is bunk." Sir Harold Spencer Jones, Astronomer Royal of the UK, 1957, two weeks before Sputnik orbited the Earth.

"Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?" H. M. Warner, co-founder of Warner Brothers, 1927.

"Television won't last because people will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night." Darryl Zanuck, movie producer, 20th Century Fox, 1946.

And last but not least:"We will bury you." Nikita Krushchev, Soviet Premier, predicting Soviet communism will triumph over U.S. capitalism, 1958.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Tis the Season for Cliches

CHRISTMAS makes me cringe.

It's not that I don't enjoy the holidays. Heck, I was born on Christmas Day so I can claim a small piece of the action.

And don't mistake me for TV commentator Bill O'Reilly, who claims there is a war on Christmas, part of the "secular progressive agenda ... because if you can get religion out, then you can pass secular progressive programs, like legalization of narcotics, euthanasia, abortion at will, gay marriage, because the objection to those things is religious-based, usually."

That's laying it on a bit thick, even for a blowhard like O'Reilly.

Nope, what really shakes my sleigh every Christmas is the onslaught of cliches, tasteless commercials and downright bad music that accompanies the holiday season.

I make a mental note each year to see who will be first to trot out the "Tis the Season" phrase in an attempt to seem clever or timely.

The winner this year is a KABC-TV anchor who uttered this particular cliche as part of a newscast in late November. This should come as no surprise. Most television newscasters use more clich├ęs than makeup.

But "Tis the Season" is easy and trite, therefore particularly irritating.

Don't believe it? Check out these examples culled from advertising and Internet sources.

Tis the season to be gorgeous.

Tis the season to be nervous.

Tis the season to stock up on ammo and hunt deer.

Tis the season to be bankrupt.

Tis the season to get loaded.

Tis the season for second jobs.

Tis the season for car thieves.

Tis the season for mass layoffs.

In the Christmas mood yet?

Let's move on to "Yes, Virginia," the opening lines of a classic editorial in the New York Post written by Francis P. Church in 1897 in response to a little girl who doubted the existence of Santa Claus.

Now we see it used thus:

Yes, Virginia, we have lobbyist disclosures.

Yes, Virginia, you can get a free credit report.

Yes, Virginia, there is great meatloaf.

Yes, Virginia, there is a recession.

Yes, Virginia, you can thaw turkeys on the counter.

And a personal favorite to get you in the holiday spirit:

Yes, Virginia, there is a hell.

The ad folks can't leave "Deck the Halls" alone either.

Deck the Halls with a strong, fit body.

Deck the Halls with bars of chocolate.

Deck the Halls with unique deals.

Deck the Halls with beer.

While were at it, let's ban "Twas the night before," the Grinch who stole (fill in the blank) and "Bah, Humbug." Dickens doesn't need the royalties.

When it comes to commercials, my least favorite is the Lexus production where one spouse surprises the other with a new car adorned with a large red bow.

I know if my wife "surprised" me with a $65,000 vehicle, we'd have a frank and open conversation about family finances at the kitchen table shortly afterwards. But these couples never bat an eye. I guess there's no recession in Commercial Land.

Speaking of large expenditures, you've got to hand it to Kay Jewelers "Every Kiss Begins With Kay" ads (One blogger reported, "If you like that, you'll love the slogan of a local jewelry store in my area: "Helping couples copulate since 1958.")

Most of these ads seem to run during football games, an attempt, we can surmise, to ratchet up the guilt level for a lot of American males. It must work. The Kay advertising budget exceeds the national debt.

Then there is that whole concept of buying commitment ... well, never mind.

When it comes to Christmas music, everyone has a favorite. I have least favorites.

Three that send me racing to the mute button are "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" by Brenda Lee who's voice can shatter ornaments, "Jingle Bells" by the Singing Dogs (followed by anything by Alvin and the Chipmunks) and "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" by a number of unfortunate artists.

Honorable mentions: "Little Drummer Boy" by David Bowie and Bing Crosby; "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" by Bruce Springsteen, closely followed by "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" by Elmo and Patty.

Case closed.