darts and laurels

Dart to The Oregonian

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October 9, 2007

Dart to The Oregonian for rolling over an obvious mathematical mistake, and thereby opening up otherwise admirable reporting to attack. When the paper researched the history of all-terrain vehicles, it found something startling: though manufacturers had made a deal with government regulators in 1988 not to produce ATVs with less lateral stability than those already on the market, the government hadn’t tested the machines for compliance since 1991. So The Oregonian hired an engineer to see if the industry was taking advantage of the lax regulation, and to demonstrate how easy it would be to resume testing, according to Tom Detzel, who edited the resulting articles. For convenience sake, the paper hired a local engineer and supplied him with an engineering paper outlining the government test. The engineer tested four off-the-lot ATVs, and came back with results far more damning than the paper expected. Detzel’s team considered getting a second opinion, but decided instead to have the engineer recheck his own work. This time the results were dramatically different, but still showed that two of the four vehicles failed the government test. The Oregonian used these numbers in a major May series on four-wheeler safety and published its engineer’s final report as a Web extra. But in late June, under a concerted assault by the ATV industry, The Oregonian retracted the study and admitted that its engineer made imprecise measurements, and that in fact all tested ATVs had met the safety standard. Moving from bad to worse, the paper conceded that its engineer had also used a version of the government formula for calculating stability that was so oversimplified as to be unrecognizable. Detzel acknowledges that he missed the errors, but says he doesn’t regret the team’s choice of engineer, saying that “he seemed competent, and he is competent.” Detzel also said he doesn’t regret the decision to not have the results vetted. One person The Oregonian could have gone to is Roy Deppa, who developed the original government test, and whose efforts to improve ATV safety were positively portrayed in the series. “In research fields, the guiding words are always ‘peer review,’” says Deppa. “If you’re going to create new research in a field you don’t know, you really need to have people look it over.”

Laurel to Jo Becker and Barton Gellman, who broke news, told a compelling story, and provided a public service through their widely praised work in The Washington Post on Dick Cheney’s unprecedented vice presidential powers. “Angler”—the veep’s Secret Service code name and the series title—shows Cheney short-circuiting Congress, the courts, torture-averse officials, and his own boss, the president. For the price of a couple of bucks of newsprint and a few scroll-over Web ads, readers got a short political biography on the level of Joe Klein’s account of the Clinton presidency, The Natural. Talk about providing value to your readers.

Dart to the Daily Mountain Eagle of Jasper, Alabama, for soaring to the foothills of conflict of interest. Jerry Geddings is the paper’s advertising director, and last fall he helped decide whether candidate advertisements in a hotly contested state senate race met publication standards. At the same time, he personally pocketed $7,500 from one campaign, according to post-election campaign-expense records. Geddings says that his work for Republican Charles Bishop designing literature, flyers, and advertisements for the Eagle and other papers was “above and beyond my regular job.” But the opposing campaign doesn’t see it that way. Jon Sapp, a local Democratic official, says that his candidate, Larry Cagle, would run an ad in one day’s paper, and Bishop would have an ad responding in the next. That quick turnaround suggested to him that Geddings was either passing notes to his client or bending the paper’s rule that copy had to be in two days before printing. (Geddings says that ads that may have looked like instant responses were actually responses to similar charges appearing in other venues.) “I don’t have a bit of guilt,” says Geddings. “My only regret was that I was so innocent as to allow them to put my name on the disclosure form.”

Laurel to the Canadian press for planting the seed of awareness for a promising alternative to eradicating Afghanistan’s opium-producing poppy crop. The U.S. press has done a fine, if little noticed, job of describing the abject failure of the Drug Enforcement Agency’s eradication efforts. (Taxpayers spent $782 million to stem poppy production in 2005, only to see the 2006 harvest increase 59 percent.) But it’s done little to question the fundamental assumption underlying the effort: that eradication—which leaves well-armed farmers and their communities upset and destitute—is the most efficacious approach in a country where peace and economic development are the priority. That’s not the case in Canada, where journalists have been spurred toward deeper analysis by the fact that this year their country could earn the dubious distinction of having lost more soldiers in Afghanistan than any foreign force besides the U.S. The Globe and Mail, the Ottawa Citizen, the Toronto Star, and several nationally syndicated columnists have nurtured the debate on an alternative to eradication—legalizing poppies for the international pharmaceutical market, a step that already has had dramatic success in India and Turkey. 

Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.