The Sun-Sentinel's Murtha Mess

By all appearances, it was just another random Saturday afternoon story assignment. A 3B job on U.S. Rep. John Murtha's remarks at a town hall meeting at Florida International University. Get out there, capture the gist of the speech, talk to a few people, get back and file eight inches of copy.

And Sun-Sentinel writer Elizabeth Baier did just that. Here's her lede on Murtha's June 24 speech:

"American presence in Iraq is more dangerous to world peace than nuclear threats from North Korea or Iran, U.S. Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., said to a crowd of more than 200 in North Miami Saturday afternoon."

Those first 18 words were all it took. The story spread through the right-wing blogosphere like wildfire: "Mad Jack Murtha" was at it again, they wrote, hating on America. The well-read Babalu Blog in Miami posted the story and called the war veteran a "traitor" and "scumbag." The Drudge Report highlighted it and Brit Hume wrote a column disparaging Murtha on Foxnews.com. The Wall Street Journal's John Fund pounced on it. On television, Bill O'Reilly brought it up on Monday's show and said Murtha's "extreme thinking" was "putting all Americans in danger." Tucker Carlson chimed in, as did Newt Gingrich. The GOP's official website posted the story under the header: "The Real Dem Agenda: Blame America."

Only it wasn't real. Baier had misinterpreted Murtha's remarks. The first clue was the Miami Herald article on the same event. Written by Melissa Sanchez, it had no mention of the incendiary statement. Murtha's office publicly refuted the story , and even obtained a statement from Sanchez.

"That was in reference to international polls. It was not so much his own conjecture, but a conclusion drawn from polls in various countries," the congressman's office quoted Sanchez as saying.

This morning the Sentinel finally admitted its mistake. The correction, which ran in the regular spot on page A3, is as follows:

An article on Page 3B of Sunday's Local section misinterpreted a comment from U.S. Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., at a town hall meeting in North Miami. In his speech, Murtha said U.S. credibility was suffering because of continued U.S. military presence in Iraq and the perception that the United States is an occupying force. Murtha was citing a recent poll, by the Pew Global Attitudes Project, that indicates a greater percentage of people in 10 of 14 foreign countries consider the U.S. presence in Iraq a greater danger to world peace than any threats posed by Iran or North Korea.

Okay, so they admitted it. The burning question: How did it happen? And the first place to look is Baier, a young reporter who began her career in journalism back in 2000, when the Miami Herald hired her as an intern while she was still a college student. The University of Miami journalism and international studies major, who speaks fluent Spanish and is of Colombian descent, worked on an off for the Herald until last year. In between, Baier did internships and fellowships, one of them with the Inter-American Press Association that took her to Santiago, Chile, where she gained some international reporting experience.

In April 2005, the Sentinel scooped her up from the Herald. Her body of work through the past six years reveals a steady, no-frills, professional reporter without any discernible political bent. For the past year, she's covered general assignment and Wilton Manors, one of the few cities in the country run by a gay-majority city commission. She's worked a lot of Saturdays. She seems to be the prototypical chameleon-like reporter, writing from the point of view of her subjects, whomever they might be. This March, for instance, Baier wrote about a gay pride event in Fort Lauderdale. Here's the top of the story:

They came decked out in rainbow-colored beads, butterfly wings and cowboy hats.

From square-dancing groups and political advocacy organizations, to local vendors and drag queens with fabulousness sprinkled all over, hundreds of revelers filled Holiday Park in Fort Lauderdale on Saturday to celebrate the 29th annual Pridefest.

The event celebrates the diversity of South Florida's gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community.

Partiers mingled and laughed their way around three large tents, which featured dozens of informational booths by groups like American Veterans for Equal Rights, Equality Florida and the Dolphin Democrats.

"I think it's awesome," said Plantation resident Alex Seligsohn, 17, who celebrated Pridefest for the first time with four friends. "It's great to feel as part of a community."

In December, she covered an anti-abortion event in Deerfield Beach attended by ultra-conservative maven Phyllis Schlafly this way:

Leslie Parker says she would never do it again.

In 1987, when she found out she and her husband Bryan Parker were expecting a baby, she went to a clinic in Montgomery, Ala. and had an abortion.

What followed were seven years of nightmares and guilt. Then she embraced Christianity, forgave herself for what she calls a horrendous act of selfishness, and became active in the anti-abortion movement.

On Saturday, Parker was among nearly 240 abortion opponents attending the 32nd annual Broward County Right to Life Benefit Breakfast at the Deerfield Beach Hilton Hotel.

"That was a mini version of me that I got rid of," said Parker, 39, a Pompano Beach stay-at home mother of a five and one-year-old.

And so it goes. Baier's stories are generally snapshots that capture the surface of times and events, unburdened by much depth. And that's obviously what she tried to do this past Saturday with the Murtha speech.

In other words, it has all the markings of an honest -- if horrific -- mistake on her part.

But, as many commentators have said on many blogs (these left-wing), the damage has already been done. And it's not just about the perception, either. The Sentinel is going through a crisis, whether it cares to acknowledge it or not.

Remember, this is the second major story this month that has been proven dead wrong, the other being a front-page report (not by Baier) accusing Broward County Sheriff Ken Jenne of cheating on his taxes. Turns out he didn't.

Both cases share a couple of problems, the reporting snafus notwithstanding. For one, the editors were slow to correct the mistakes. As soon as the newspaper heard from readers that the Murtha story was wrong, it should have investigated thoroughly and gotten a correction up much more quickly. Had it even made it into Tuesday's newspaper, that would have helped incalculably to slow the avalanche of misinformation the Sentinel produced.

And there's been a lack of accountability by management. Let's not mince words: These were colossal errors. And they deserved major mea culpas. Yet, in both cases, the newspaper wrote brief, rather incomprehensible corrections that left the casual readers scratching their heads. Both deserved -- no, demanded -- more prominent play in the newspaper, a thorough explanation, and an apology.

In short, it's time that the Sentinel comes clean with its everyday readers and comes clean quickly. Or it can start kissing its credibility goodbye.

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