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Notes from Blunder Ground

The Tribune-Review piles on factual errors in an editorial, then fails to correct the most egregious ones.

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The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's Aug. 20 editorial, "A fine NEA moment," had all the makings of a piece from the paper's Clinton-bashing glory days. It had lurid allegations of sex in the office, a man in a position of power and an intern -- or in this case, a teacher's aide -- and the silent complicity of perfidious unions. The only thing missing was Vince Foster's corpse.

But "A fine NEA moment" turned out not to be the Trib's finest hour.

The piece concerned the travails of Wayne Nadeau, a Vermont educator recently elected to the National Education Association's executive committee. Citing a Vermont Press Bureau story as its source, the Trib reported that Nadeau had "admitted to having consensual sex with a female teacher's aide. ... In his classroom. On his desktop. ... Other students were in the building. And Nadeau cautioned the aide 'to not scream in pleasure.'" If anything was more shocking than this "desktop sexcapade," it was the NEA's seemingly blasé reaction. The Trib quoted NEA spokesperson Kathleen Lyons asserting that "Having sex with a white female is not a disqualification." "Nadeau is black," the Trib helpfully noted.

The Trib acknowledged that Nadeau voluntarily resigned from the executive committee, but concluded "As for the NEA, don't get us started."

That's advice the Trib might wish the original source for the story -- whoever it was -- had followed.

Nadeau, it turns out, isn't black. And Lyons never said the teacher's aide was white. In fact, "There is nothing to indicate that Nadeau had sex on a desk, or that he told the woman to be quiet," says Darren Allen, the bureau chief of the Vermont Press Bureau. While Nadeau did admit to having an affair on school grounds, and while he did resign from the NEA's executive committee when the affair came to light, the Trib's other details are "whole-cloth stuff," Allen says. "It certainly isn't in any public record we've gotten our hands on."

Which is a problem, considering that the Press Bureau was the only source the Trib cited. The bureau has never mentioned Nadeau's race, and only partly because he and the woman were both white: "It's irrelevant," Allen says. He's surprised the Trib feels differently: "I don't know what's going on in Pittsburgh, but last time I was there, it seemed more enlightened than that."

So where did the Trib's information come from? That's what Kathleen Lyons wanted to know. When Lyons saw her quote, she demanded a retraction from editorial page editor Colin McNickle. But McNickle "kept insisting this was a news report," she says, and to prove it he sent her a copy of the report itself (which the Press Bureau forwarded to City Paper).

After poring over the document, Lyons and Press Bureau staffers discovered that McNickle had relied upon a July 16 Press Bureau story -- but that the story had been doctored. Several key phrases had either been added to or changed in the 872-word piece [see illustration]. Lyons' original statement to the Press Bureau, for example, had been changed from "Having an affair is not a disqualification" to "Having sex with a white female is not a disqualification." Other details were invented outright: The fake account reports that Nadeau previously filed a race-based discrimination claim "because he was black."

The Trib did avoid repeating the most dangerous falsehood: The fake story asserts that Nadeau had slept with a student, a part of the doctored-up story that the Trib repaired with a little doctoring of its own.

Still, Lyons suggests that because the Trib got that detail right, it should have suspected other details were wrong. "They obviously knew there was something fishy, but they didn't call me. The nicest thing I could say about them was they were willingly duped. I just think they were too ready to believe it."

So where did the doctored version of the story come from? Lyons hasn't seen the story anywhere else, and calls to McNickle and Trib editor Frank Craig were not returned.

The Trib did publish a vaguely worded correction on Aug. 22, acknowledging "part of the language" describing Nadeau's affair was "incorrect." The correction also noted that the editorial "included a quote from [Lyons], part of which she did not speak." It doesn't specify which information was fabricated, or even note that Nadeau is white. In fact, its correction barely acknowledges a fabrication took place, noting only that "erroneous information came from a correct Vermont Press Bureau story that had been changed by a third party and redistributed." The correction does maintain, "The errors ... did not alter the editorial's concluding point," although the paper has removed the editorial from its Web site.

The correction hasn't mollified anyone. The Vermont Press Bureau's Allen calls it a "non-correction correction," and Lyons says she's "surprised they even ran it."

It's not always easy to correct the record. "You don't want to compound the error by repeating it -- unless it's absolutely necessary to make the correction clear," says Don Wycliff, a Chicago Tribune editor who helped draft a report on corrections and other ethics concerns for the Poynter Institute, a renowned training center for journalists. Still, he says, "You have to tell people what the true facts are."

Wycliff declined to comment on the Trib's correction, but added that the anonymous hoax "seems really mean."

Indeed, "I've never heard anything like that," says Libby Sternberg, executive director of Vermonters for Better Education, when told of the trumped-up allegations. Like the Trib, Sternberg is a frequent NEA critic, and she's publicized details of Nadeau's indiscretions. Still, "I can't think of anyone who would do something like that. Especially the African-American angle."

She admits, however, that "When you head an advocacy group like this, you get a lot of calls saying, 'Did you hear this?' And when you go to investigate it, you find out it's not true. So we've been very, very careful with that story."

If only the Trib could say the same.




The Tribune-Review's Aug. 20 editorial relied on a version of a July 16 Vermont Press Bureau story that had been altered at three key points (indicated below by italics). The Trib, however, made no mention of Nadeau's fictitious lawsuit, and correctly reported that Nadeau's partner was not a student but a teacher's aide.

The original Vermont Press Bureau story:
"'It's a personal matter ...,' said NEA spokeswoman Kathleen Lyons. 'Having an affair is not a disqualification, and I know it's something he regrets.'"

The story as altered, according to the Tribune-Review, by a "third party":
"'It's a personal matter ...,' said NEA spokeswoman Kathleen Lyons. 'Having sex with a white female student is not a disqualification and I know it's something he regrets.'"

Original:
"... Nadeau admitted that during the 2001-02 school year he had consensual sex with a female paraprofessional in his classroom. 'Although the door to Mr. Nadeau's classroom was closed, the ... sexual activity occurred at times when students were, and might have been, present in the building,' the agreement said."

Altered version:
"... Nadeau admitted that during the 2001-02 school year he had consensual sex with a female student on his desktop in the classroom. 'Although the door to Mr. Nadeau's classroom was closed, the aforementioned sexual activity occurred at times when students were, and might have been, present in the building. And Nadeau cautioned the student to not scream in pleasure,' the agreement said."

Original:
"Vermont NEA President Angelo Dorta ... said he only learned Wednesday about the matter because NEA attorneys who represented Nadeau were bound by attorney-client privilege not to disclose it to others. It will not affect his position with either union, officials said."

Altered version:
"Vermont NEA President Angelo Dorta ... said he only learned Wednesday about the matter because NEA attorneys who represented Nadeau were bound by attorney-client privilege not to disclose it to others. It became known that Nadeau had treatened [sic] a discrimination lawsuit alleging that he had been single [sic] out because he was black. It will not affect his position with either union, officials said."

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