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Better Late Than Never


Published March 15, 2000 at 1:00 a.m.

Anybody see the little correction, or rather, as they call it in Vermont's largest daily, the little "Setting It Straight," that ran in Saturday's Burlington Free Press?

No? Didn't think so. A lot of folks missed it, including the president of the Vermont Senate — Sen. Peter Shumlin of Windham County.

At Monday morning's legislative breakfast at the Sheraton, Sen. Shummy took a bite out of our local Gannett-chain newspaper for the bogus editorial it published on February 23. That editorial told senators not to dare pass a bill that would regulate prescription drug prices in the Green Mountains.

The Freeps editorial stated both the attorney general and legislative consultants had pre-dicted such a bill would be "unconstitutional."

"The Burlington Free Press ran an editorial on this issue," Shummy told 250 of Chittenden County's business leaders, "and it said that Bill Sorrell, our attorney general, said that it was unconstitutional to regulate [drug prices] within the state. Bill Sorrell never said that," noted Shumlin. "He definitely said it is constitutional to regulate within the state. It's unconstitutional to regulate outside the state. The Free Press just got that wrong."

Everybody makes mistakes. But this particular mistake was picked up by others — including the Vermont Republican Party's biweekly newsletter, GOP Update— as a statement of gospel truth.

The day it ran, the Freeps editorial became a target of scorn and biting humor at the Statehouse. The folks battling over this issue, from senate Democrats to pharmaceutical lobbyists, knew the paper got its facts cockeyed.

Over in a corner of the cafeteria, VPIRG lobbyist and Progressive Party gubernatorial candi-date Anthony Pollina was talking intently into his cell phone. Pollina is a leader of the charge against the drug companies. He was talking to Freeps editorial writer Molly Walsh. Tony's tongue went round and round pointing out the fact that Sorrell had not even testified before the senate committee, and that the legislative con-sultant, Scott Hempling, had stated in his report: "States have jurisdiction to regulate transactions occurring within the state."

As soon as the call ended, we asked Pollina if we could expect the appropriate correction in the following day's edition of Vermont's largest daily.

"No correction," he replied, "Molly said I could write an 'It's My Turn.'"

That's curious, considering the fact that Good Golly Ms. Molly's editorial had not one, not two, but three prominent factual errors. This wasn't about a difference of opinion. And, according to the Gannett Corporation's statement of journalistic ethics, which it has proudly posted on the Internet, "When errors occur, the newspaper has an ethical obligation to correct the record and minimize harm."


So, you ask, why did it take two-and-a-half weeks for The Burlington Free Press to "correct" its editorial errors?

Looks like Ms. Molly forgot to inform her boss, Editorial Page Editor Stephen Kiernan, that she'd goofed — big-time.

We had the pleasure of running into Mr. Kiernan on Church Street last week and brought it to his attention. Kiernan took it as news to him and checked into the matter. The result was Saturday's oblique "Setting It Straight" on page 2 stating the Feb. 23 editorial "had overstated the Attorney General's position."

No shit.

However, according to Gannett's ethics code, "Errors should be corrected with sufficient prominence that readers who saw the original error are likely to see the correction."

Once again, bravo!

It’s been our policy to correct errors made in Inside Track right here in the column. We want them to be noticed. It's about taking ownership for one's mistakes and utilizing the best vehicle to get the correct version before those who read the incorrect version.

That's not, unfortunately, the way The Burlington Free Press implements the code broadcast by the Gannett Mother Ship in Arlington, Virginia, to its 92 daily newspapers.

For example, when Freeps columnist Sam "The Sham" Hemingway screws up, his corrections never appear in his insightful column. In fact, when and if they appear at all, the Hemingway corrections neglect to even identify in whose column the error occurred. They always read "in a column..." What column?

Same with Freeps editorials. The corrections are never on the editorial page, where the damage was done. That's why even an avid news junkie like Sen. Peter Shumlin missed Saturday's correction, which, by the way, still left uncorrected the inaccuracy about the legislative consultant's position on the drug bill's constitutionality.

Mr. Kiernan stoutly defends his paper's corrections' policy. What the Freeps does, he said, is "common practice." And in a rare case of the Free Press giving Seven Days a tip, Steverino told us to expect a correction in Wednesday morning's edition — a correction of his own recent Sunday column heralding his 10th anniversary at the paper.

Mr. Kiernan confessed he had incorrectly attributed the quote, "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” to Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Actually, it was Henry David Thoreau. You'd think a Middlebury College graduate would catch that.

Not to worry. Everybody makes mistakes. In fact, Ms. Walsh got back to us Tuesday after-noon. "I regret the error," said Molly. "It should have been corrected sooner."

And last but not least, Mr. Kiernan recently was named the Freeps "Employee of the Year." The prize — a Hawaiian vacation! Publisher Jim Carey, we're told, proudly announced to the staff it had a retail value of $4000. Congratulations! Aloha!

P.S. The Senate passed the drug bill 24-5.

Politicians With Rap Sheets Update — Well, the election is over and the two Burlington city council candidates with rap sheets were easily defeated. But The Burlington Free Press remains unable to come up with a policy on reporting such details. As you know, the Free Press shied away from reporting the convictions and charges against two independent candidates. Executive Editor Mickey Hirten told Seven Days this week he has "really wrestled" with this one, but so far the matter, he said, "remains unresolved." Mr. Hirten said he's reluctant to publish the crimes of some unless certain of the innocence of the rest.

Sounds like a God complex to me.

So, anybody out there with a criminal record who has considered a run for public office out of the question, take heed. Come to Burlington, Vermont, the nation's most livable city. Your little dark secret will stay a little secret, at least as far as The Burlington Free Press is concerned.

Block Party — By the way, we had the honor of tipping Editor Hirten off about the planned major festivities in Burlap marking Friday's observance of St. Patrick's Day. You see, the block of College Street right in front of Mickey's own newspaper will be closed to traffic from 10 a.m. on for an all-day and all-night celebration. And that won't be bottled spring water the revelers will be drinking. That also tells us it might be a good idea if Molly Walsh called in sick on St. Paddy's Day. Molly is, after all, the Queen City's Temperance Queen, God bless her. A year ago, the former Living Section stalwart was calling the citizenry to arms to oppose the issuance of a liquor license for Rí Rá, the city's newest Irish Pub on Church Street.

Lenten Dispensation — If you've been wondering about the dispensation granted by Vermont's Roman Catholic Bishop Ken Angell allowing the consumption of corned beef this Friday, St. Patrick's Day, you're not alone. Once upon a time, Catholics abstained from meat every Friday. As a child we wondered if the Vatican owned all the tuna canneries on the Alaskan coast. Tuna fish sandwiches on Fridays were a ritual, like sunrise.

Nowadays, abstaining from meat can't compete with abstaining from sex year-round. Currently, the prohibition is on meat-eating on Fridays in Lent, as opposed to every Friday.

Anyway, Vermont's Corned Beef Bishop was only following the lead of Bernard Law, the Catholic cardinal in Boston.

Corned beef and cabbage is an Irish-American tradition, right up there with the juice of the barley. Still, some saw a profound irony in comparing Bishop Angell's position on civil rights with corned beef-eating rights. Hard to line up Angell's statements of intolerance for gay and lesbian couples with his tolerance for relaxing the rules for St. Patrick's Day celebrants.

At least, some suggest, the Bingo Bish could have declared, "OK. Eat your corned beef and cabbage if you. must, but you've got to give something up to Almighty God. Therefore — no beer! One or the other. Beef or beer. You decide, and say a prayer for traditional marriage!"

But, that wasn't in the cards. In fact, Fr. Walter Miller, chancellor of the Diocese of Vermont, told Seven Days the Freeps headline on the front-page story Saturday — "Corned Beef OK for Irish Catholics" —caused a little problem. Fr. Miller said he received a call from a non-Irish-American Catholic who wondered if the OK on corned beef applied to French Catholics, too? And if it included pork chops, meat pies and pepperoni pizza?

Yes. All Catholics, and all meat, too. In fact, as far as we know, even gay and lesbian Catholics in Vermont have Bishop Angell's permission to eat meat this Friday.

Happy St. Patrick's Day.

Atonement—As you may know, Cardinal Law, like the Pope, did a whole lot of asking for forgiveness Sunday for all the past and present sins of the Church. The Crusades, the Holocaust — it's a pretty long list when you stop to think about it. The Bishop of Boston went one better, apologizing for the clergy's sexual abuse of children.

Whoa! And to think, recently yours truly was scorned by Libby Sternberg, managing editor of the Vermont "GOP Update," and a VPR commen-tator, for daring to reference the sordid public record of pedophiles who, sadly, have worn the collar.

Yours truly suggests Sternberg has her head in the sand.

Cardinal Law — to his credit — certainly does not.

We asked Fr. Miller if we can expect the Bishop of Vermont to follow in the footsteps of Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Law and ask forgiveness for the sins of the church.

"At the present moment," said Miller, "there are no plans."

Commuter Rail This Year? —Legislative sources say Gov. Howard Dean's Charlotte-Burlington commuter rail service is in limbo. The "Fleecing of America" project is way behind schedule, and some lawmakers speculate Ho-Ho doesn't want his Choo-Choo to start up until after the election, since the low ridership, they say, will be a major embarrassment to our governor.

Moonlight in NicaraguaMayor Peter Clavelle says his recent week-long visit to Burlington's Nicaraguan sister-city, Puerto Cabezas, "was a wonderful trip that will influence the lives of many people, particularly the young people." Several local families made the trek (at personal, not city, expense) and delivered a huge shipment of baseball equipment contributed by area Little Leagues and the Vermont Expos.

Upon their arrival, Mayor Moonie and his friend, Kenny O'Donnell (of the super-long hair and beard), were welcomed by-some as "The Leader of the Free World and Santa Claus," said Clavelle. Literally.

Hey, it's all about context.