Horsing Around

How the Miami Herald screwed up its Kentucky Derby coverage

Ugh. That line that should have made any editor's (or reader's) blood run cold. Yet the story, as they say, had legs. It appeared in dozens of newspapers and on several television networks the next day.

But cracks started to develop almost immediately. When Derby officials magnified the photo 250 times with the help of Louisville police, they saw the offending "cue ring" was nothing of the sort. It was actually the strap of the goggles around the neck of Jerry Bailey, who was riding runner-up Empire Maker (which because of the camera angle, looked like it was on Santos' wrist).

And when an editor contacted Carlson to follow up, the part-timer acknowledged that there was "maybe a 5 percent chance he got [the quote about the 'cue ring'] wrong," Fiedler said. Carlson couldn't be reached by New Times for comment.

So let me get this straight: In Miami, the most Hispanic city in the country, the newspaper of record screwed up because someone misunderstood a Spanish speaker? "It happened because of the jockey's accent," Fiedler says. "If we have a situation again where a Spanish-speaking jockey [talks to] a non-Spanish-speaking reporter, we'll have a Spanish speaker conduct the interview."

And though no racing expert knew what a "cue ring" was, nobody bothered to call back Santos? "We obviously are unhappy that there was what amounted to an inaccurate quote, a flawed interview that went into our decision to publish," Fiedler acknowledges.

Several employees I spoke with, though, attributed the mistake to a deeper problem, one caused by the paper's rich history and threadbare present. Just a little more than a decade ago, the Herald had aspirations to compete with the New York Times and the Washington Post. It had bureaus in Atlanta and New York City and a full-timer in Los Angeles. Berlin too. But all those bureaus closed. Though the bleeding has been temporarily stanched in the past few years, the news staff is 10 percent smaller than it was in 2000 and a shadow of what it was in its glory days. Indeed, its decline has paralleled, but been steeper, than those of its larger brethren -- dailies like the Los Angeles Times and Philadelphia Inquirer.

The paper relied on a stringer to write a significant national story. Sure, full-timer Spencer contributed, but you don't count on a critical interview done by a sports-department stringer for a story of this magnitude. "To me, it's a result of a problem in the culture of the newspaper," one reporter said. "It's wanting to be the now, the sensational, the happening."

Added a Hispanic editor: "The fuck-up was mostly at the reportorial level. If I had heard he didn't understand, I would have called up the jockey, but Sports Editor Jorge [Rojas] was apparently never told that."

And Miller: "We made a decision based on an interview that was completely bungled. There should have been an attempt to get the jockey back on the phone."

Fiedler, who was attending a meeting in San Jose the night before publication, said he doesn't blame his editors or Carlson, who still works for the paper: "Given the information that people had at the time and the efforts that had gone into the newsgathering, I don't believe their decision was something that I would challenge. Had I been in the room at the time, I don't believe I would have reversed their decision."

Fiedler also contends that short staffing had nothing to do with the mistake. Wrong. The story should have been delayed so that a staffer could have called Santos. When your reputation is on the line, you don't trust a part-timer. The Heraldwas just another newspaper covering the Derby, not the newspaper of old, and Carlson apparently didn't have the necessary expertise to do a story of this magnitude.

The story of Santos' vindication ran in fewer newspapers than the accusation. And as any racing fan now knows, the jockey and Funny Cide went on to win the Preakness. After the second victory, the horse's trainer, Barclay Tagg, was interviewed on national television: "Those people down in Miami are nuts," he said. The folks at One Herald Plaza can only imagine Tagg's words after he wins the Triple Crown.

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