Why people get mad at the media, part 8, Business Week/McGraw Hill finally does the right thing and publishes two retractions

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As you may remember from my spine-tingling serial blogs, I have now spent more than two weeks scampering up and down the hills and through the bogs with the BW/MH folks in San Francisco and their towering headquarters building in midtown Manhattan. I was trying to get a simple correction on some mistakes it made in its Aug. l4th cover story (“Valley boys: how this 29-year-old kid made $60 million in l8th months.”) Here is a recap and a play-by-play:

BW/MH in its first three lines in its first paragraph in its lead story made two bad mistakes. The lead: “It was June 26, 4:45 a.m., and Digg founder Kevin Rose was slugging back tea and trying to keep his eyes open as he drove his Volkswagen Golf to Digg’s headquarters above the grungy offices of the SF Weekly in Potrero Hill.” The first mistake: Digg.com is a tenant of the Guardian in the Guardian building at l35 Mississippi St., and its offices are above the Guardian offices. The SF Weekly is our chain competitor, owned out of Phoenix, Arizona, and its offices are on the other side of Mission Bay. The second mistake: our offices are not “grungy” and the BW/MH reporters were never in our offices.

I decided, what the hell, I’ll go through the drill and try to get a correction. And so I fought my way up the chain of command, by phone and email, from the sales offices in San Francisco to another office on the Peninsula to editorial offices high up in the BW/MG building on the Avenue of the Americas in New York. Finally, I got a call back from Mary Kuntz, an assistant managing editor who contended that the magazine had already done a correction in its online edition, replacing the SF Weekly offices with the Guardian offices.

This correction also ran in the Aug. 2l edition under a “Corrections and Clarifications” head: “The offices of Digg.com, featured in Valley boys” (Cover story, Aug. l4), are located above those of the San Francisco Bay Guardian, not SF Weekly.” Thanks, I said, noting the change from “grungy” offices to “grungy” lobby and how this was an admission that confirmed the reporters were never in our offices. I argued that leaving that pesky word “grungy” in the online edition and not taking it out of the printed edition only made the “correction” even more worse. She refused to budge, so my wife Jean Dibble, co-founder and co-publisher, went around the paper and took pictures and put them on my blog to try to prove our point that our offices weren’t “grungy.” Maybe this turned the tide. Kuntz went back to confer with some mysterious unnamed editor back in the headquarters ozone.

She called back a couple days later and said they were making another correction. Okay, I said, read it to me. The new correction said that the offices were not “grungy,” but the lobby was “grungy.” I was astounded. How in the world, I asked, can the editors in New York say that our lobby was “grungy” when they hadn’t seen it? She replied that her reporters had and they thought it was “grungy.” Well, I reminded her that the dictionary defined “grungy” as being in a “shabby or dirty in character or condition” and asked specifically what was “grungy" about our lobby? Was it our community bulletin board? Was it our community table for the city’s independent papers? Was it our “free press board” with a map from the Freedom House in New York showing the world’s free, partly free, and not free press, country by country? Was it the alerts from international free press organizations about murdered and jailed journalists? Was it our vintage UPI ticker machine, used in the old UPI office in San Francisco, one of the historic items in a San Francisco journalism museum project that we are helping establish? Was it the famous clock from the window of the old Brugmann’s Drug Store in Rock Rapids, Iowa, which the townsfolk used for decades to set their watches? (We display the clock on the wall near our reception desk.) Or was it perhaps the colorful mural of alternative San Francisco on the outside wall of the Guardian? She said no to all the questions. I then laid down the ultimate threat: Jean Dibble would this time around do pictures of the lobby, the clock, and the mural and put them up on my blog on the Guardian website. Maybe that did the trick.

Kuntz called back a couple of days later and read me the second correction. Fine and thanks, thanks, I said. It ran in the Sept. 4 edition as follows: “In our Aug. l4th cover story on Digg.com, we incorrectly described the offices of the San Francisco Bay Guardian as grungy. We regret the error.”

Amazing. I appreciate the corrections and I appreciate that BW/McGraw Hill did the right thing. I told Kuntz that, if she came to San Francisco, I would invite her (and that mysterious inside editor back in the stacks) for a Potrero Hill martini at the Connecticut Yankee. Or, when I come to New York, I would invite her (and that mystery editor) for a martini at the West End Bar (my old hangout on ll3th and Broadway when I was at the nearby Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University.) Cheers!

Summing up: how to fight for a correction, how the media should handle reader complaints, the correction policy of the Guardian and the model policy of the Minnesota New Council, an impartial, independent, non-government organization that hears and considers complaints against the news media. The Guardian, let me note, places itself under the jurisdiction of the Minnesota News Council, as outlined in a special box in each Guardian under the letters column.

P.S. Memo to Business Week/McGraw Hill: keep your reporters and editors out of newspaper offices and lobbies. We’ll all be better off.