Proof that it’s never to late to correct a factual error

The New York Times this morning published a correction of a story it ran 161 years ago, on January 20, 1853:

Screen Shot 2014-03-04 at 6.11.33 PM Screen Shot 2014-03-04 at 6.11.59 PM

The Times does take its responsibility for factual accuracy seriously. This whimsical correction of two, 161-year-old spelling errors was one of nine corrections it published today. Five years ago, at the urging of Contrarian and Provincial Court Judge Anne Derrick, the Times corrected its obituary of Donald Marshall Jr. The original version of the Times obit had incorrectly described the circumstances surrounding the killing of Sandy Seale, the 16-year-old boy whom Marshall was falsely convicted of murdering.

For all they criticize others, journalists have notoriously thin skins. They hate admitting error. Certain local journals all but refuse to do so unless someone credibly threatens litigation. Yet here comes the august New York Times publishing fistsful of mea culpas day after day. Far from diminishing its credibility or exposing the paper as sloppy, this willingness to admit and correct mistakes enhances its stature.

The Times published tens of thousands of words a day about fast-breaking, important, often controversial events. It is not humanly possible to do that without making mistakes. By correcting them forthrightly, the Times show readers a commitment to get things right.

To be sure, many critics say the Times gets a lot of big things wrong, such as its reluctance to apply the term “torture” to brutal tactics employed by the US Military. I agree with some of this criticism, but they are matters of editorial judgment and opinion. I am still grateful for the paper’s determination to ferret out and fix even the smallest factual mistakes.

The gold standard for correction goes to the Public Radio International program This American Life, which discovered it had been grossly misled by a freelancer in an episode that purported to expose abuse of factory workers in China. The program didn’t merely correct, retract, and apologize for the story. It did all of those things, but it also devoted a full hour to a meticulous examination of the fabrication, and its producers’ failure to realize they were being hoodwinked. The correction is a remarkable piece of journalism in its candour, thoroughness, and willingness to shine an unflattering spotlight on its own journalistic failings. Ironically, it gave me an almost unshakable trust in the program. You can listen to the correction here, and download the transcript here. You can subscribe to the podcast with iTunes or any podcast app.


Which obit makes the news?

From a September 9 Facebook post by David Rodenhiser, marquee columnist for the Halifax Daily News until its demise in 2008, now toiling for Nova Scotia Power’s communications group.

In the Obituaries section of the Chronicle-Herald there are notices for no fewer than six veterans of the Second World War:

  • Joseph “Bunny” McLaughlin, army, who brought home a war bride in 1946
  • Jaleel “John” Laba, army, who later owned and operated Laba’s Discount on Gottingen Street for many years
  • Stanley Cairns, merchant mariner
  • George Haliburton, army
  • Adele Healy, RCAF secretary
  • Walter Shaw, army, wounded in Germany in 1945

There’s also an obituary for Cecile d’Entremont, who passed away at the age of 100, survived by a host of descendants including a great-great-great grandchild.

Meanwhile, leading all newscasts: a Halifax house cat has died of cancer.

In retrospect, one of the first steps in the long downward trek of newspapering came when papers began charging for obituaries, which had until the 1980s, been regarded as news stories. This prefigured, and can’t be blamed on, disruptions caused by the internet. It reflected a voracious appetite for revenue by newspaper chain owners like Roy Thompson and Conrad Black, who held little regard for the medium’s traditional service role.

John "Jeleel" Laba 1924 - 2013
John “Jeleel” Laba
1924 – 2013

Monetizing obits had the side effect of eliminating news coverage of the deaths of community members who were less than famous — people who had been injured in long ago wars, or run long forgotten working class retail establishments, or found their brides in war-torn countries far away. It made newspapers less useful, and usefulness turned out to be a commodity newspapers would ignore at their peril.

The late Esther Dubinsky of Sydney, co-proprietor with husband Newman of Whitney Pier’s legendary Sydney Ship Supply, was outraged when the Thompson-owned Cape Breton Post began charging for obits. The independently owned Chronicle-Herald and Mail-Star held out for several years before falling in line with the industry trend.  Until it did, Esther instructed her children that her obit in the Post should read:

Esther Dubinsky died yesterday. For details, see the Chronicle-Herald.


This morning’s waterfront view

Here’s the view this morning from the second storey of the Nova Scotia Power building on Lower Water Street.


Photo: David Rodenhiser. Click image for full sized version.

Of course, you can’t see the NS Power building from this photograph, but I will take this opportunity to note that it is the most under-appreciated architectural marvel in Nova Scotia—a magnificent structure with many interesting features that combine to make it an exceptionally beautiful and functional workplace. The ground floor of the defunct coal-fired generating station is accessible to the public from the boardwalk side. If you are in the neighbourhood during business hours, you really should take a peek inside. The architects, WZMH of Toronto, have a good slide show of the interior and exterior.

AllNovaScotia punk’d by Denis Ryan

[Updated below] Our friends at AllNovaScotia (subscription required) appear to have been punk’d by [restaurateur] singing investor Denis Ryan and Halifax folksinger-comedian Tony Quinn in a YouTube spoof of a profane Irish expat turning the air blue-green with outrage over the Emerald Isle’s financial travails.

The NSFW clip identifies Quinn as a reporter for “the Financial News,” which morphs to “the Financial Times” in the AllNS piece. As alert Contrarian reader DR points out, however, the clip does not turn up on any site calling itself  ‘Financial News,’ and the reporter definitely doesn’t say, ‘Financial Times.’

Also, the ‘reporter’ looks and sounds remarkably like local comedian Tony Quinn. You’ll note that at no point does any text pop up ID’ing Denis Ryan, as would normally happen in an authentic news clip, nor is there the omnipresent news agency watermark on the lower right corner. And, finally, the clip ends with a Michael Flatley joke.

Still, as an exercise in Peter Capaldi-grade malediction, the skit is, ah, bracing. Cover your ears, Grandma:

With only 36,000 views when AllNS went to bed last night, the clip barely had the sniffles, but as of 3 p.m., today, it’s on it’s way to modest viral status, with 274,281 airings. That’s well shy of How to Be Alone (2.1 million),  United Breaks Guitars territory (9.6 million), or Picnicface (21.9 million) real estate, to cite three Bluenose examples, but not bad for a pair of ‘sixties geezers.

Quinn’s speaker’s bureau website, incidentally, bills him as offering “clean, corporate and convention musical comedy.” Well, he doesn’t swear in the clip.

Update: Roger Ebert gets with the program.

Self-indulgent lefties let Harper off the hook – updated & corrected

Pinto Pony Productions, a small Toronto video production house specializing in non-invasive filming techniques, took to the streets of Toronto this weekend and shot the best roundup of demonstrator-vs.-police violence I could find on YouTube. The protesters did not impress the filmmakers.

The Harper Government made a serious miscalculation with its absurd expenditure on security for the G8/G20. Halifax did a G8 nine years ago for $27 million, and Pittsburg did a G20 last year for $95 million [see correction below]. Harper spent ten times that amount: $12 million an hour over the three days; three times what security for any international leaders’ gathering has ever cost before.

This plays to the nagging doubts middle-of-the-road Canadians have about Harper. It hints at the proto-fascism we suspect lurks in the old Reform core of the so-called Conservative Party. It shows contempt for civil liberties. It bespeaks a brand of hypocrisy that pitches fiscal conservatism out the window whenever the police or the military want more goodies. A week ago, I thought Harper had fatally damaged his chances of getting a majority with this jingoism.

Not now. By making common cause with masked blackshirts bent on smashing windows, burning police cars, and throwing rocks, peaceful protesters have stupidly squandered that advantage. Public opinion, firmly on our side week ago, is now firmly on Harper’s. Spare us any whining about police over-reaction. I just watched all the YouTube videos I could find of the Toronto events, most of them taken by protest sympathizers, and saw little that could be termed seriously out of line in the police response (and I write as someone who witnessed truly vicious police actions in Chicago, Ill., in 1968 and 1970, and in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963). This time, the left was both self-indulgent and self-defeating. (See Update below.)

There was one protest moment that Pinto Pony videographer Bill Stoppard did like, however:

[Update] After I posted this, a video by Meghann Millard surfaced, showing a police attack on apparently peaceful demonstrators who were singing, O Canada! Not exactly Birmingham or Chicago scale police violence, but utterly stupid nonetheless.

Imagine how Harper would look today if this is the only kind of protest police faced in Toronto. Instead, the moronic blackshirts gave him all the excuses he needed.

[Correction] The Halifax G7 was in 1995, not 2001, so 15 years ago, not nine. The federal budget for that summit was $28 million; the provincial budget, $5 million. Lots more info here. Thanks to David Rodenhiser, one of Contrarian’s crack researchers, er, readers, for the correct info.

Liveblog: NSP meets its customers – Day 1


Roberta Bondar poses with charmed NSP flacks.
Roberta Bondar poses with charmed NSP flacks.

My old Daily News chum David Rodenhiser, now laboring in NSP communications, asked Bondar if she had any startling revelations in space.

Many of them. One is that Buck Rogers was a myth. We romanticize space. It’s a very difficult environment. It’s very hard. It’s hard on the body. But you can’t beat the view.

8:40 p.m.:

bondar-sA surprisingly witty keynote speech by Roberta Bondar began with several slides of Hurricane Bill. These days Bondar makes her living as a professional speaker, but this isn’t shaping up to be a canned speech. Moneyquote:

The Challenger disaster happened because communications failed.

Anyone who has read William Langewiesche’s brilliant account of the Columbia disaster in the Atlantic, knows that communications brought it down, too. More specifically, an intellectually dishonest PowerPoint presentation lulled top NASA executives into the false belief that there was no problem with the shuttle. When junior engineers tried to sound the alarm, their superiors shut them down.

People didn’t want to hear that a piece of foam might have caused damage. How could a piece of foam the size of a football not do damage when it was flying by at 1000 miles an hour.

Bondar’s view of consumers’ and citizens’ roles in energy policy:

You have to listen; you have to hear; you have to learn; and if you don’t, you may be the reason communications will fail. If we avoid something, we will never learn how things can change.

Friday, 8:20 p.m.: Nova Scotia Power’s community forum is underway in Truro, and I’ll be live blogging the event in this space tonight and tomorrow, adding observations as they occur to me.

NSP President Rob Bennet kicked off the session with a mercifully short explanation of its purpose: to discuss “the challenges and choices we face, as we move away from coal, not only as a company but as a province.”

Not only as a company, but as a province. This is something critics of NSP need to realize. Nova Scotia’s environmental performance is inextricably connected to Nova Scotia Power’s environmental performance. Like it or not, we’re in this together.