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Newspaper Nitpickery

Today is one of those days when the world seems to be collapsing: Israel, Iraq, India. The newspapers are full of foreboding news. And putting out a really good newspaper every day is an incredibly hard thing to do. Personally, I think the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal are both really good newspapers. So, in offering the following nitpicks, I feel doubly guilty — a) because there is so much troubling news; and b) because it is so hard to convey that news well.

That said, the sloppiness in the Times this morning, albeit minor, was absurd.

In a short profile of Marshall Brown, an internet evangelist who is wiring NYC’s parks for wi-fi service, the reporter describes interviewing him “in the art gallery of the landmark Arsenal in Central Park at East 54th Street.” Last time I checked, the Arsenal was in fact at 64th Street; in fact, it’d be pretty hard to place any Central Park building at 54th Street since the Park itself ends at 59th Street.

Okay, you say, it’s a silly minor error, should have been caught but not worth getting bothered about.

But here’s the next sentence: “‘Probably a million people come to Central Park on a sunny summer day, and if even 1 percent of them come with wireless-capable devices, that’s a thousand people who can be connecting with our service,’ [Brown] fantasizes…”

Again, last time I checked, 1 percent of 1 million would be closer to 10,000 than 1,000. Do I care if the guy got his math wrong, doing the numbers in his head, maybe even nervous from doing an interview with a newspaper reporter? No. Everybody makes mistakes. (We’ve made tons on this blog — there’s probably a few on this very post — and some in our book too; that’s one reason, btw, why we’re issuing a revised and expanded edition in the fall.) But one job a newspaper has, among many other more difficult ones, is to not print mistakes as if they’re not mistakes. And to have many pairs of eyes read something before it’s published.

So maybe everybody involved here is just really, really bad at math (and, as evidenced by the 54th Street error, at reading maps).

Or maybe Brown didn’t get his math wrong; maybe he actually said “…that’s ten thousand people who can be connecting …,” and the reporter misheard him, and never looked at the math, and then a series of editors also never looked at the math. More often than you think, reporters simply mishear their subjects and print the wrong quote. My favorite mistake of this type also occurred in the Times, 13 years ago. Here’s the correction the paper published then: Because of a transmission error, an interview in the Egos & Ids column on May 16 with Mary Matalin, the former deputy manager of the Bush campaign who is a co-host of a new talk show on CNBC, quoted her incorrectly on the talk show host Rush Limbaugh. She said he was “sui generis,” not “sweet, generous.”

There’s also a table in the Times‘s business section today showing the minute-by-minute Dow activity yesterday, and the numbers on the chart are simply wrong. But enough of beating up on my favorite paper.

The Journal today makes an error of omission that probably only about 10 people care about. Every Friday, the Journal publishes its list of best-selling books. It has become a nice Friday morning ritual for me to wake up, open the door, and find that list to see where Freakonomics is resting. Last week, we were still No. 1 on the paper’s business list. This week, however, there’s no list at all. I’m guessing this wasn’t an accident. I’m guessing that the Journal is hurting so badly for ad pages that they’ve had to cut content, and — well, like I said, there’s probably only 10 people who care that the best-seller list isn’t there today, but I happen to be one of them.

Elsewhere in the Journal, there’s a really interesting (unsigned)commentary about a phenomenon I’ve long noticed: how negatively the American businessperson is portrayed on TV shows. I used to watch a lot of Law & Order, which is perhaps the worst offender. On Law & Order, the typical businessman is corrupt, bullheaded, and usually a murderer. But Law & Order is not alone. According a new study by the Business & Media Institute (okay, okay, I’m guessing they’re maybe a tiny bit biased), if you use TV dramas as your measuring stick, then “businessmen [are] a greater threat to society than terrorists, gangs or the mob.” As the Journal writes, “Out of 39 episodes that featured business-related plots, the study found, 77% advanced a negative view of the world of commerce and its practitioners.”