Media Circus

Published February 10, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

it was Siegfried and Roy, you may recall, who first brought our attention to the hidden meanings behind seemingly innocent "slips of the tongue" and pen. Such errors, the Viennese lion-tamers and founders of psychoanalysis famously observed, have "content and meaning" of their own, suggesting that a barely suppressed thought or impulse has managed to sneak itself into a person's speech or writing by the back door. "[T]he tendency which is debarred from expression asserts itself against [the speaker's] will and gains utterance," wrote the seasoned Vegas performers and authors of "The Interpretation of Dreams," "either by altering the expression of the intention permitted by him, or by mingling with it, or actually by setting itself in place of it."

Wait. Not Siegfried and Roy. Sigmund Freud.

What the hell was I thinking?

Let's just say, to get to the point, that mistakes are made. And that, in the world of journalism (if not of psychoanalysis), many of these errors are later corrected in the much underappreciated "corrections" columns in the daily papers. Just as to Freud slips of the tongue were far more interesting than perfectly delivered speeches, so to me the corrections columns are far more interesting than most of what's in the papers. Some people turn to the Sports page before they even glance at the headlines; others make a beeline to the horoscope. Me, I read the corrections first, and I've been collecting them, for years, the way some collect Pez dispensers or vintage Barbies.

Editors' Note: A mistake made by a transcription service mangled a quotation from William Bennett in Michael Kelly's July 17th Letter from Washington. In criticizing the political views of Patrick Buchanan, Mr. Bennett said "It's a real us-and-them kind of thing," not, as we reported, "It's a real S & M kind of thing." -- Actual correction from The New Yorker

True, many corrections are simple affairs, lacking any broader meaning or resonance: remedying a few misplaced digits of a phone number, for example, or the misspelling of a name. Generally speaking, there's not much hidden meaning there -- though after reading, in the Chicago Tribune, that "The name of Richard Seaman, vice president of Evanston's Fourth of July Association, was misspelled in Thursday's Chicagoland story about fireworks celebrations," I can't help but think that this is probably not the first time Dick Seaman has had his name misspelled. Still, these corrections fix facts that can't possibly mean anything at all to the vast majority of readers, who could undoubtedly live out their whole lives without ever realizing the error they had inadvertently been exposed to. Who but a mountain tit-mouse watcher (or a mountain tit-mouse) could really care, for example, that a "bird in a drawing accompanying an article Tuesday about John James Audubon was incorrectly identified as a green finch. It was a bird known in Audubon's time as a long-tailed mountain tit-mouse" (as the Washington Post recently informed its readers)? But a few people do care, in some cases quite deeply, and these corrections are for them.

A map that ran Friday incorrectly identified an area in Croatia as Western Slovenia. It should have been identified as Western Slavonia. -- Chicago Tribune

Other times the errors suggest not simple carelessness but, rather, a certain narrowness of perspective. Editors are forever getting the names of presidents wrong, typing Millard Fillmore when really they mean James Buchanan, or James Buchanan when they mean Martin Van Buren (Washington Post). And geography is a constant struggle. It's hardly surprising to see the Tribune 'fess up that "a map on the front page Thursday identified Romania as Bulgaria" or the Times have to explain that it had manage to bungle the Hungarian flag. ("The flag has three horizontal stripes, red on top, white in the middle and green on the bottom, but no stars on the middle stripe.")

An article on former "Super Circus" star Mary Hartline in Thursday's Tempo had three errors. The story said she would not allow an interview; it should have said she was not interviewed. She says her age is 68, not 71. And 'Love for Sale' was not one of her favorite songs. The Tribune regrets the errors. -- Chicago Tribune

Corrections can tell a story of their own, often a story far more interesting than the original newspaper stories that prompted them in the first place. One can only imagine the phone call that led to the Tribune correcting Ms. Hartline's favorite songs, and giving her a couple more years of relative youth to boot. Or the angry calls from furniture retailers (many of them, one imagines, advertisers) that caused the Tribune to essentially retract a story it ran in 1994 unfavorably comparing retail furniture dealers to their mail-order counterparts. "An article in the May 26 Your Money section left several incorrect impressions about furniture sales because it described the viewpoints of people on only one side of the business," the Tribune editors wrote, starting off a minutely detailed correction of the offending article. "A quotation in the article belittling the qualifications of retailers' sales staffs should not have been accepted at face value nor published; neither should the assertion that mail-order businesses have 'higher standards of operation' because, as interstate concerns, they are 'overseen by the federal government,' a reference to the Interstate Commerce Commission by the person being quoted."

Even more intriguing is the "Editors' Note" I ran across in a recent issue of the Times, an apology of sorts for a piece last December that had purported to expose the secrets behind magician David Copperfield's act. The article had included statements from a man calling himself "Seth Greenspan" who said he'd worked as an audience "plant" for Copperfield; in fact, the Times now reported, the man wasn't who he said he was. "After the article was published, the producer of (Copperfield's show) visited the Times with the real Mr. Greenspan, who produced full identification," the editors wrote. "A telephone number at which the impostor was reached, after the original interview, has since been disconnected." (Which suggests, I suppose, that the first "Mr. Greenspan" was not only a fraud but a telephone bill scofflaw.)

Still other corrections are simply mysterious, like the Tribune's announcement in the fall of 1995 that "an answer to the first question of the News Quiz in Perspective Sunday was partially incorrect. The bones discovered at a Chicago construction site indeed were human, but the bones discovered in Will County belonged to a mastodon, not a dinosaur." Sure, I'm sick of O.J. and glad it's all over -- but this is one double-murder case I'd like to know more about.

A review in the Feb. 19 Tribune Books section referred to Christopher Lehmann-Haupt as "a soon-to-retire book critic for The New York Times." Mr. Lehmann-Haupt is not about to retire. -- Chicago Tribune

The best corrections, of course, reflect errors that are truly Freudian, expressing secret desires and secret hostilities. What compelled a Tribune writer to describe the victim of a murderous white supremacist as a "North Shore dentist," when, in fact (as the paper was compelled to report), "Jonathan Haynes did not in fact kill a dentist, but a plastic surgeon (Dr. Martin Sullivan), whom Haynes considered a purveyor of 'fake Aryan beauty.'" Does someone at the Tribune perhaps hold a deep grudge against a cruel dentist of his youth? Or against a certain judge? ("In the last line of an item in Sunday's 'Chicago this week' column, Judge Eugene Wojcik's name was mistakenly substituted for that of convicted murderer Guinevere Garcia. Garcia faces execution by lethal injection on Nov. 21.")

I'm not sure. But I'm sure Siegfried and Roy would have a thing or two to say about it.

E X T R A !

Dummy headline Readers of the New York Times Living Arts section last week may have noticed a rather peculiar headline over (not-as-yet-retired) Christopher Lehmann-Haupt's Thursday book review. Lehmann-Haupt, who is still working, took a rather favorable look at a recent book on the dreaded subject of the national debt. The headline: "An Unfathomable Bore That Defies Intuition." Was this a reference to the debt itself? Or was this perhaps a dummy headline plugged in by a bored and irritated copy editor tired of coming up with headlines for the (still-employed) Lehmann-Haupt? Only time, and the New York Times "corrections" column, will tell.
Feb. 7, 1997

-- David Futrelle

By David Futrelle

David Futrelle, a regular Sneak Peeks contributor, has written for The Nation, Newsday, and Lingua Franca.

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