Tuesday, May 24, 2011

I have officially become an old crank

Maybe I've just spent too much time hunched over a keyboard with my friends consisting of disembodied names and messages from every part of the globe except this one.

But I have become an old crank.

I don't yell at kids to get off my lawn. In fact, some of the neighborhood kids were over playing with the dog a few days ago and I'd welcome them back (as would he).

No, I've become one of those loveable, tiresome old cranks who writes letters to editors complaining about mistakes in grammar.

Let me correct that: Complaining about one mistake in grammar.

I don't deny that it is a personal thing, that this particular error drives me up the wall and I am simply indulging in self-therapy by complaining. Nor do I deny that I'm being a pain in the ass.

But let me just share the letter I have been sending out, which will explain it perfectly well, I hope. I have this letter in a file on my desktop and, when I feel the need, I simply cut-and-paste it into an email, add the particulars in two places to make it specific to the case at hand, and send it off.

It reads:

As a former reporter and editor, I used to hate people who would seemingly reduce a story to a grammatical error they had spotted, but this is one that is becoming an epidemic and that changes the meaning of a sentence. It is also, of course, a pet peeve of mine or I wouldn't bother. (Letters like this are why you make the big bucks.) 

(Insert paragraph citing incorrect usage in case at hand, which is invariably "may have" in place of "might have.")

Most writers and editors realize that, in speculating against fact, you use "were" rather than "was" -- If I were in your shoes, If I were a rich man -- and that "if I was" implies uncertainty -- "If I was there, I don't remember it."

But "may have" and "might have" carry the same requirement, and the difference in meaning can be genuinely confusing. 

Where it becomes an issue is in sentences like "The criminal may have escaped" versus "The criminal might have escaped."

If he might have escaped, well, thank goodness he didn't. If he may have escaped, somebody should go have a look in his jail cell and find out.

Again, a bit of a pet peeve, but, perfection aside, it's an error that makes the reporter look stupid: "Police said wearing a seat belt may have saved his life" is a foolish sentence if the lede was "John Smith died in a car accident."

(Insert paragraph pointing out that meaning and usage in case at hand were obviously in conflict. Add polite closing.)

I get polite responses. So did Lazlo Toth.

Well, whatever. I feel better about it because I'm not sitting there thinking "Idiots! Idiots!"

Instead, I'm sitting there thinking, "Your children are going to have to have you locked up."

Sunday, May 15, 2011

"How long will it be before 'Forrest Gump' technology becomes the standard tool for spicing up news coverage?"

This is the latest bogus video to hit the Internets, and the latest to be produced as a commercial -- this one for Gillette -- and then  "leaked" to create a stir. (An earlier example, a Gatorade spot purporting to show a ball girl making an impossible leaping grab, can be seen here.)

This piece appeared on the Huffington Post which -- once it had lured readers into clicking and adding to the statistics they show their advertisers -- admitted that it knew the piece was phony all along. While I guess we should be grateful they owned up to the fraud, it's not like they discovered the video was fake and decided not to post it. I was reminded of a column I wrote back in July, 1994, to which I would only add that, having since begun toning photos for print, I'm more forgiving of the TIME Magazine cover of OJ (who had only been arrested a few weeks before this column ran). 

Oh, and I would also add,  "I told you so."

Technological media tricks feed public paranoia
The Press-Republican, Plattsburgh NY, July 17, 1994

If I believed in synchronicity, I'd be convinced that the convergence of the O.J. Simpson trial, the release of "Forrest Gump"and the 25th anniversary of the first moon landing was intended as a cosmic warning to the media.
   Following the moon landing in 1969, feature stories began to appear about people who believed the government had faked the whole thing.
   In 1978, Hollywood capitalized on  that paranoid disbelief with a movie about a phony Mars landing staged on a desert soundstage to fool the American public.
   One of the stars of that movie, "Capricorn One," was former football star O.J. Simpson. Today, we have feature stories showing that a significant number of people do not believe Simpson guilty of murder.
   Some of these people may simply insist on calling him innocent until proven guilty, but there are clearly a large number who believe Simpson is being framed by "them."
   Until there is a vaccine for paranoia, some people will insist, despite all evidence, upon the existence  of government conspiracies, UFO abductions and underwater cryptosaurian critters. But there are others who teeter between irrational disbelief and healthy skepticism, and they may still be coaxed to the truth with sufficient evidence.
   This is where "Forrest Gump" enters the picture.
   I have long been uncomfortable with bogus archival footage, those phony black-and-white television ads that either show fake "strait-laced experts" or bogus "company founders," as if what you are seeing was shot several decades ago.
   "Forest Gump" ups the ante. Instead of phony actors in bogus settings, we now have real dead folks in extremely convincing footage, doing and saying things they never did or said.
   I'm not concerned that future generations will view "Forrest Gump" as a documentary, and I respect the creators' right to be creative. Still, I worry how we in the media can convince anyone of the truth of anything while we so cheerfully demonstrate our uncanny ability to fake reality.
   At least "Forrest Gump" is presented as fiction.
   Supermarket tabloids have been using cut-and-paste photo composites of two-headed housewives and bat-children from the moon for years, and passing off this nonsense as the real thing. Now, technology has made it possible to create fraudulent pictures without the redeeming veneer of goofiness the supermarket tabloids have always possessed: Real photos and phony photos have become virtually indistinguishable.
   Sadly, real newspapers and supermarket tabloids are likewise becoming a little hard to tell apart.
   Most  newspapers, including the Press-Republican, have rules against using this commonly available technology to create misleading photographs, but it is an ability that has not gone unused at some allegedly respectable places.
   In addition to the recent TIME Magazine cover doctored to make Simpson look more sinister, Newsday drew flak during the Winter Olympics for faking a picture in which Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding were shown apparently skating together.
   It's ironic that an industry so eager to pounce upon the ethical shortcomings of others is willing to barter away its own credibility for the sake of a brief flash of graphic excitement. As was pointed out in a discussion on WCFE's "The Editors," the days of "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus" are now past, those innocent days when a father could tell his child that, if you read it in the newspaper, it must be true.
   You may argue whether the purpose of a free press is to provide the nation with an informed citizenry or to maximize profits by pandering to the public lust for cheap thrills, but for TIME or Newsday to stoop to the level of a supermarket tabloid is more than an insult to readers. When one of the most influential newsmagazines and a leading daily newspaper both make an editorial decision to begin manufacturing images, how long will it be before "Forrest Gump" technology becomes the standard tool for spicing up news coverage?
   I remain convinced that the majority of people who believe the unbelievable do so out of ignorance, but I am finding it harder to believe that we are winning the war against  that ignorance.
   The barbarians are not only at the gate, but they are gaining an alarming degree of control over the means of communication.
   Humanity has survived some astonishing plunges into ignorance, and I do not think that the world will end because of a debasing of the mainstream media. On the other hand, I have no particular desire to live through the next Dark Age myself, and events in Bosnia, Rwanda and elsewhere demonstrate clearly that we have not outgrown our penchant for rotten behavior. I can't help but be discouraged at anything that feeds the forces of ignorance, prejudice and fear.
   The answer, as always, lies in our children.
   The media and educators have a societal responsibility not to teach young people to accept the word of authority figures, but to teach them how to judge the validity of what they are told by any source.
   Toward that end, I applaud the growing movement among educators to reduce their reliance upon textbooks and to send students out to conduct independent research on topics of interest.
   Students must learn the difference between primary and secondary sources, and how to evaluate each.
   They must learn to distinguish error and lies, and to recognize truth.
   Meanwhile, the media is going to have to do some serious soul-searching and decide how to handle the amazing technology available to it.
   Having demonstrated our ability to produce fake photographs and videotape, and a willingness to do so, we have a grave responsibility to demonstrate some visible and credible restraint in the future.
   I know that "Forrest Gump" is fiction. Let's make sure we're all clear on what isn't.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Jack steals the king's sheep
(a Cornish folktale)

When Jack learned that the king was seeking a husband for his daughter, he was sure that he was just the man the king wanted. So he came to the castle and presented himself at the throne, declaring that he was willing to marry the princess and bring honor to the royal family.

The king looked down from his throne at the young man, who looked nothing like any prince he had ever seen. "What honor do you bring?" he asked.

"I am the most clever thief in all the realm," Jack stated. "I could steal your own sheep from under your nose."

"My sheep are well taken care of," the king said, but Jack laughed.

"Yet I could steal them," he said.

"How many do you think you could make off with?" the king asked. "After all, I lose one or two every so often to wolves or misadventure. It is nothing to me for someone to steal a few sheep. I don't even miss them. So, how many will you steal?"

"The flock," Jack said. "I will steal the whole flock."

Now the king laughed. "If you can do that, you are the world's greatest thief!"

"And worthy of your daughter?"

The king laughed even harder. "Indeed. Steal the whole flock and you will have my daughter as well!"

Jack left the castle and went directly to the shoemaker. There, he purchased a fine pair of shoes, made of soft, shining leather.

Then he went out to the highway where the king's sheep would be driven from their summer pasture to the town. He placed one of the lovely new shoes in the middle of the road, squatted over it and filled it with shit.

Jack then walked down the highway for another mile and a half, placed the other shoe in the middle of the road, hid in the woods by the roadside and went to sleep.

An hour later, the king's shepherds began to take the flock from their summer pasture into town. The two men walked down the highway with the flock of sheep, slowly working their way towards the town where the flock would be sold for a great profit.

They had walked only a short distance when they came to a shoe in the middle of the road. It was a well-made shoe of fine leather, and newly made. But someone had taken a shit in the shoe, and the two shepherds stood over it, staring and scratching their heads.

"Who would do such a thing?" one of them asked. "This is a very fine shoe! Who would ruin it like this?"

"It's disgusting," the other shepherd declared. "What sort of person would do such a thing?"

They kicked the shoe into the ditch and continued down the highway. leading their sheep to town, until, after another mile and a half, they came upon the second shoe.

This one was perfectly clean, and the two shepherds looked it over carefully. "This is a fine shoe," the first shepherd said.

"Indeed it is," the second said, and then they looked over their shoulders and down the road.

"Stay here," the first shepherd said. "I'm going to go back and get that shoe. I can clean it up and have a great new pair of shoes!"

"Why should you have the shoes?" the second shepherd said. "You kicked the first shoe into the ditch! You didn't want it!"

"You called it 'disgusting'!" the first shepherd said, and they began to argue, until suddenly the second shepherd grabbed the shoe from the road and began to run down the highway, with the first shepherd hard on his heels, shouting at him that the shoes belonged to him!

As soon as they were gone, Jack stepped out of the forest, refreshed from his nap, and led the king's sheep the rest of the way into town so he could claim his reward.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Covering Breaking News: Watching the network news tonight, the second day after bin Laden's death, they spoke about how "the story is changing." So what? When you cover breaking news, the story always changes. The first reports come from scribbled notes and from people at HQ who haven't sat down with the people who were out in the field. Once everyone settles down, the story takes clearer shape, but, by then, the news has already been reported.

Here's a breaking-news story I reported in 1991, and then the follow-up story that ran the next day, once things had settled down. Note that the incident happened at 11 a.m., about nine hours before first deadlines. This doesn't change the fact that not all the information was in, but it did allow me time to check in with the people in Philadelphia. Had it happened six hours later, the first report would have been extremely sketchy. (I actually filed the story at about 6 p.m.)

Sorry the photo isn't clearer, but it's scanned from a photocopy of the article. The editor said he was disappointed I wasn't able to get a shot of the body. I asked, "Would you have run a picture of the body?" He admitted that they wouldn't have. I love editors.

Then I had to add the paragraph about the "witnesses" who had appeared on TV saying the police had fired on the car. Note, in the second story, how much effort and space is spent disputing their version of events. If only they had had computer access, they could have been "citizen journalists." I love them, too.

You'll note that things have tightened up at the border a bit in the intervening 20 years. 

Oh, and one more thing: Editors write the headlines. I know that shotguns shoot shot.

Staff photo/Mike Peterson
State Police investigators remove a shotgun from the scene of a roadblock in West Plattsburgh that ended in death for a fugitive from Pennsylvania and Connecticut. Police had chased him from the border at Rouses Point after he had fled questioning there.

Fugitive dies in police chase
Unclear how fatal bullet was fired into out-of-state gunman

By Mike Peterson
Staff Writer
PLATTSBURGH - Blasts from Wade Rollins's shotgun ended two chases in three days.
    The first was fired at Pennsylvania State Police Cpl. King Lee, as he attempted to stop Rollins's rented 1991 Toyota Tercel in Northeast Philadelphia, in the early hours of Saturday.
    The second was fired into Rollin’s chest, as New York State Troopers and Customs officers approached his then disabled Toyota in West Plattsburgh late Monday morning.
    Rollins, 29, of Bristol. Conn., was pronounced dead at CVPH Medical Center at 11:04 a.m.. It was not clear from police reports whether the wound was intentional or the result of a mishap.
    According to Supervising Special Agent Paul Graveline of the Office of Enforcement of the U.S. Customs Service, Rollins attempted to enter the United States at the Rouses Point Port of Entry. The immigration inspector on duty identified the fugitive, notified the inspector inside and sent Rollins into the building on the pretext of a secondary customs inspection.
    Rollins left his car and went into the customs shed, but, when the inspector began to question him, bolted back outside and headed for his car.
    The inspector chased Rollins, catching up with him as he was closing the door of his car, but was unable to stop him.
    Rollins sped away from the Port of Entry and drove through Rouses Point, with two special agents from the port on his tail. Two other Customs vehicles followed a short time later, and were soon joined by State Police and Border Patrol officers.
    The chase eventually led to Interstate 87 and south toward Plattsburgh, then through the city and onto Route 3 toward West Plattsburgh.
    Customs and State Police officers set up a roadblock on Route 3, just beyond the intersection with the Rand Hill Road.
    WPTZ-TV interviewed witnesses to the ensuing confrontation who said police fired into the vehicle as it approached the roadblock at high speed, but police responded on camera with a flat denial that any police or customs officers fired their guns.
    According to State Police, Rollins attempted to crash the roadblock, which damaged the blockading vehicles but also disabled the Toyota. As officers approached the vehicle, the shotgun discharged.
    Rollins was pulled from the front seat of his car and placed on the ground. First aid was applied by the Morrisonville Rescue Squad and he was transported to the CVPH Emergency Room, where he was pronounced dead.
    State Police said four of their cars and a Customs vehicle were damaged in the pursuit and roadblock.
    According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Rollins’s odyssey began just after 2 a.m. Saturday morning, when he was stopped in Horsham Township, Pa., for erratic driving.
    As the township police officer was arresting Rollins for failing a sobriety test, he discovered a knife in Rollins’s back pocket. He took the knife and attempted to handcuff Rollins, hut Rollins fought back and managed to get to his car and escape.
    He then led local and state police on a 12-mile chase into Philadelphia. Cpl. Lee picked up the chase and pursued Rollins down the Pennsylvania Turnpike, through a set of tollbooths and into the city.
    Rollins pulled around a corner, stopped the car and got out, and. as Lee's cruiser turned the corner, pointed the shotgun at the officer Lee stopped his car and dove across the seat as the blast shattered his windshield, showering him with glass fragments.
    Lee emerged and returned fire with his .357 magnum revolver as Rollins, who was already sought by New Haven. Conn. authorities for firearms violations, fled. 
    Pennsylvania authorities put his name and description out on a national network of police agencies, which led to his identification when he attempted to cross the border.
    Plattsburgh and Chazy State Police BCI investigators are attempting to trace the route that brought Rollins from eastern Pennsylvania to the Canadian border.

Death at roadblock following chase ruled a suicide

By Mike Peterson
Staff Writer
PLATTSBURGH - A day after Wade Rollins died at a police roadblock in West Plattsburgh, killed in the front seat of a rented car by his own shotgun in what the coroner has now ruled a suicide, there was still little known about where the 29-year-old Connecticut man spent the last two days of his life.
    However, some discrepancies had begun to clear up by Tuesday:
    One witness, who had earlier told WPTZ that police had fired on the car as it approached their barricade, told police investigators that she had heard only one shot, apparently the shot that killed Rollins. The second of Channel 5’s witnesses, Steve Mason, said he had spoken with police and would have no further comment.     "It's a small town. I've got to live here. I'm just going to keep my mouth shut, OK?" he said.
Denies police fired
    New York State Police Senior Investigator Steve Pendergast insisted no shots were fired by police or customs officers, and a superficial examination of the dead man's rented car at the scene of the confrontation suggested it had not been hit by gunfire. Pendergast said police have spoken with Mason, and he has now told them he only heard one gunshot.
    The windshield of the white Toyota Tercel showed a small impact fracture, but there was no damage to the windows on the three sides of the vehicle approachable during the investigation, while the only apparent body damage appeared to have come from impact with police and Customs vehicles. There were no apparent punctures of the body metal that could have been bullet holes.
    By contrast, when Rollins fired his shotgun through the windshield of a Pennsylvania state trooper's car Saturday morning, the windshield was reportedly destroyed. Corporal King Lee, who had ducked out of the line of fire, was showered with and cut by bits of glass as he lay across the front seat of the vehicle.
Travels a mystery
    It was not clear why Rollins was in the Philadelphia area.
    The Philadelphia Inquirer had reported Sunday that Rollins was sought by New Haven. Conn., authorities for firearms violations, but detectives in New Haven told the Press-Republican they had no information on him.
    A reporter with Rollins’s hometown paper in Bristol, Conn., however, said that, while Bristol police records showed no arrests for Rollins in the past two years, he was wanted there on various charges relating to family violence. According to Mark Anderson of the Bristol Press, Rollins’s wife, Arline, had sworn out a complaint for a Feb. 26 incident in which she alleged that Rollins had beaten her, their four-year-old daughter and their two-year-old son.
    The complaint charged that Rollins had beaten her throughout their 10-year marriage, and that the children had also been beaten before the date of the complaint.
Rented from Hertz
    Pendergast said Rollins rented the Toyota from a Hertz counter at Bradley International Airport in Hartford, Conn., Feb. 20, nearly a week before the date of the alleged episode of family violence for which he was sought.
    But, while the car was overdue, there was apparently no active effort being made to recover it.
    Rollins’s whereabouts in the 55 hours between the confrontation with Pennsylvania authorities and his appearance at Rouses Point remain unknown. Trooper Roger Hoffman of the Pennsylvania State Police said there had been an unconfirmed sighting of the Toyota in Philadelphia Saturday night, but no other indications of where he might have been.
    Ironically, Rollins appeared at the U.S. border, apparently coming from Canada, on the day Canada announced it was experimenting with express lanes at its border with the United States. While Rollins would not have qualified for express-lane treatment, Canadian authorities would not have any record of his entry unless he attracted attention in some way, such as by declaring purchases.
Alert issued
    Pennsylvania authorities had issued a nationwide alert for Rollins, which resulted in his identification at Rouses Point when an immigration official entered his license number into a computer. But Canadian border stations are not equipped with computers, and border authorities are only furnished with information on cars that are expected to attempt to cross into Canada, according to a Canadian official.
    "These kinds of cases happen,” admitted Patricia Birkett, manager for Canadian Immigration at La Colle. Quebec. "The question is, do we stop every person? Do we have every license plate number on a computer? We don't have the facilities for that. That's the way it is between our two countries: We have an open border, and, most of the time, it works."
May have turned back
    Pendergast said it was possible that Rollins never entered Canada, that he approached the crossing from the Rouses Point side, realized he would have to clear Canadian Customs, and turned back, only to discover he now had to go through the US port of entry.
    Pendergast said Rollins had enough funds at the time of his death to suggest he would not leave a trail of credit card slips. None of the cash, he said, was Canadian.

news stories copyright 1991, the Press-Republican, Plattsburgh, NY