Horsing Around with Journalism
By now, most sports fans know that the Miami Herald on May 10 published an apparent blockbuster questioning the integrity of the nation's premier equine event, the Kentucky Derby.
And by now, almost everyone knows the Herald blew it.
Commentators around the world have hit the paper for falsely insinuating that jockey José Santos used an illegal instrument to drive his horse, Funny Cide, to victory in the Run for the Roses. "Miami Newspaper's Carelessness Tarnished Many Reputations," scolded a headline over a column in the Lexington Herald-Leader. "Bad journalism led to controversy," reproached the Las Vegas Review-Journal. "The most severe indictment should be reserved for the Miami Herald, which instigated the whole mess in a frantic attempt to scoop the world," George Kimball wrote in the Irish Times.
More than 200 people fulminated about the screwup in letters to the editor. "Why didn't you have the brains of a bright ten-year-old?" questioned one. "You should be ashamed of yourselves," wrote another. "What's next? UFO sightings?" queried a third.
Even the Herald's chief investigative editor, one of the architects of the famed Gary Hart scandal, Jim Savage, is apparently dissatisfied with his employer's response to what he calls "Photogate." Here's Savage's recent posting on the newspaper's internal electronic bulletin board, which is called "Read Me": "Before Funny Cide races into history at the Belmont Stakes, I think the Herald should publish a front-page apology to José Santos simply saying we were wrong. There should be no lingering suspicion about his ride in the Kentucky Derby and we are sorry for any damage to his reputation."
But the Herald has issued no front-page mea culpa. And though there has been some internal finger-pointing, a couple of columns, and a lengthy story on the issue by top reporter Jay Weaver (buried deep in the sports section!), the paper seems to have moved on. Even Herald executive editor Tom Fiedler, a friend and first-rate journalist, is in denial.
That's a shame, because the incident is telling. Both metaphorically and literally, it describes the decline of what was once the best-written, quirkiest, and most interesting newspaper in America -- at which, by the way, I spent six and a half years as a reporter. It should send a message to management about ways to improve and focus in a time of declining resources.
I've spoken to a dozen Herald reporters and editors over the past week to trace the discussions that led to the offending 839-word story by part-timer Frank Carlson and staffer Clark Spencer. And I've learned that the problems started when the two top editors -- Fiedler and managing editor Mark Seibel -- were out of town; continued with the (quite competent) person in charge, assistant managing editor Judy Miller, attempting to make late-night decisions with incomplete information; and spiraled out of control because Carlson didn't admit his failure to understand Santos, whose native language is Spanish.
In other words: Bad judgment. Bad management. The wrong hands on deck.
The story first came up for serious discussion at a 4:00 p.m. meeting on Friday, May 9. Carlson, a stringer for three years, believed that a photo taken by Getty Images photographer Jamie Squire during the race showed something in Santos's hand.
Miller and others pointed out that doctoring was possible. They asked for other shots taken after the allegedly incriminating one. Indeed the additional 20 to 30 photos showed nothing. "When I left around 7:30 p.m.," Miller said, "I thought the story was dead."
Carlson e-mailed the snapshot to two race stewards. Both termed it suspicious and said they planned to meet with a lawyer to discuss strategy. When this was reported to sports editor Jorge Rojas, he called Miller on her cell phone. Miller told him the story should not run without an explanation from the jockey.
Carlson tracked down Santos -- or actually, the reporter contacted a publicist, who then directed the jockey to call the reporter. Santos, who speaks English with a heavy Chilean accent, contends that he simply told Carlson he was wearing a Q-Ray, a birthday bracelet that his wife, Rita, had given him two weeks before for arthritis. Yet Carlson heard not "Q-Ray for arthritis" but "cue ring to call the outriders." The call lasted less than a minute. Santos slammed down the phone after complaining about Carlson's "negative bullshit," according to the Herald's later account.
Sources say Carlson expressed no hesitation in describing the "cue ring" to his editors. The stringer alone did the interview, so no one could verify his version of events.
Carlson then called Rojas, who in turn telephoned Miller's cell phone a second time. Miller at that point said the story should not play on the front page. But, she added, they should try to find out what the "cue ring" was and whether such an instrument is legal.
That the reporters did. But they got nothing. And Miller heard no more from her office that night, though the story was reviewed by the newspaper's lawyer before it was published.
The piece that finally ran on the front of the sports section was so full of caveats that it should clearly have never been in print. Though three sources quoted in the piece written by Carlson and Spencer said they had no idea of the definition of a "cue ring," the writers followed up with this stinger: "Some jockeys have been known to use illegal, battery-operated devices."
Ugh. That line should have made any editor's (or reader's) blood run cold. Yet the story, as they say, had legs. It appeared in dozens of newspapers and on several television networks the next day.
But cracks started to develop almost immediately. When Derby officials magnified the photo 250 times with the help of Louisville police, they saw the offending "cue ring" was nothing of the sort. It was actually the strap of the goggles around the neck of Jerry Bailey, who was riding runner-up Empire Maker (because of the camera angle, it looked like it was on Santos's wrist).
And when an editor contacted Carlson to follow up, the part-timer acknowledged that there was "maybe a five percent chance he got [the quote about the "cue ring"] wrong," Fiedler said. Carlson couldn't be reached by New Times for comment.
So let me get this straight: In Miami, the most Hispanic city in the country, the newspaper of record screwed up because someone misunderstood a Spanish speaker? "It happened because of the jockey's accent," Fiedler says. "If we have a situation again where a Spanish-speaking jockey [talks to] a non-Spanish-speaking reporter, we'll have a Spanish speaker conduct the interview."
And though no racing expert knew what a "cue ring" was, nobody bothered to call back Santos? "We obviously are unhappy that there was what amounted to an inaccurate quote, a flawed interview that went into our decision to publish," Fiedler acknowledges.
Several employees I spoke with, though, attributed the mistake to a deeper problem, one caused by the paper's rich history and threadbare present. Just a little more than a decade ago, the Herald had aspirations to compete with the New York Times and the Washington Post. It had bureaus in Atlanta and New York City and a full-timer in Los Angeles. Berlin too. But all those bureaus closed. Though the bleeding has been temporarily stanched in the past few years, the news staff is ten percent smaller than it was in 2000 and a shadow of what it was in its glory days. Indeed, its decline has paralleled, but been steeper, than those of its larger brethren -- dailies like the Los Angeles Times and Philadelphia Inquirer.
The paper relied on a stringer to write a significant national story. Sure, full-timer Spencer contributed, but you don't count on a critical interview done by a sports-department stringer for a story of this magnitude. "To me, it's a result of a problem in the culture of the newspaper," one reporter said. "It's wanting to be the now, the sensational, the happening."
Added a Hispanic editor: "The fuck-up was mostly at the reportorial level. If I had heard he didn't understand, I would have called up the jockey, but sports editor Jorge [Rojas] was apparently never told that."
And Miller: "We made a decision based on an interview that was completely bungled. There should have been an attempt to get the jockey back on the phone."
Fiedler, who was attending a meeting in San Jose the night before publication, said he doesn't blame his editors or Carlson, who still works for the paper: "Given the information that people had at the time and the efforts that had gone into the newsgathering, I don't believe their decision was something that I would challenge. Had I been in the room at the time, I don't believe I would have reversed their decision."
Fiedler also contends that short-staffing had nothing to do with the mistake. Wrong. The story should have been delayed so that a staffer could have called Santos. When your reputation is on the line, you don't trust a part-timer. The Herald was just another newspaper covering the Derby, not the newspaper of old, and Carlson apparently didn't have the necessary expertise to do a story of this magnitude.
The story of Santos's vindication ran in fewer newspapers than the accusation. And as any racing fan now knows, the jockey and Funny Cide went on to win the Preakness. After the second victory, the horse's trainer, Barclay Tagg, was interviewed on national television: "Those people down in Miami are nuts," he said. The folks at One Herald Plaza can only imagine Tagg's words after he wins the Triple Crown.
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