Embarrassing error on Obamas' Valentine's dinner
Love is blind, so the saying goes, and apparently it also can cause temporary blindness among journalists writing about Valentine’s Day. How else to explain an embarrassing error in Monday’s Post?
The “Names & Faces” feature in the Style section included a short item under the headline: “Obamas’ Valentine’s getaway.”
“It was date night for President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama on Saturday,” it began, describing how the First Couple had “dined out at the exclusive Chicago restaurant Table Fifty-Two,” according to the Chicago Sun-Times.
The problem is that the item was a year old. The Obamas did, in fact, have a Valentine’s dinner at Table Fifty-Two in Chicago on Feb. 14. . . 2009. But this year, they spent Valentine’s Day at Camp David.
The mistake was made by Tim Smith, a young news aide in the Style section, but also slipped past two levels of editing. It began when Smith was trolling the Internet Sunday for items to include in the “News & Faces” feature. Curious about how the president would spend the day, Smith went to Google News and typed “Obama” and “Valentine’s” in the search field. Up popped the Chicago Sun-Times story, dated Feb. 14, that began: “President Obama and First Lady Michelle are celebrating Valentines Day Saturday night in Chicago at the Table Fifty-Two restaurant at 52 W. Elm St. The co-owner and executive chef of the restaurant is Art Smith, the one time personal chef for Oprah Winfrey.”
Smith began fact-checking the item, scrutinizing the correct spelling of names and the location of a restaurant Art Smith also owns in the District. He went on the Website for Table Fifty-Two and planned to call after they opened at 4 p.m. Chicago time to check on what the Obamas had eaten the previous evening.
But in his research, Smith failed to note that the Sun-Times story had been written in 2009. The story ranked so high among stories yielded by his Google search that he just assumed it was timely. “It escaped me to even look at the date of the article,” he said Monday. Likewise, he said, “it slipped my mind to double check” with Table Fifty-Two later Sunday afternoon to see what the Obamas had eaten. And he apparently was not suspicious that Valentine’s Day was Sunday, not Saturday, as the Sun-Times story said.
After Smith wrote the item, it went through Scott Vogel, a style section editor, who said Monday that he did not independently check to confirm that the Obamas had dined at Table Fifty-two.
After Vogel, the item went through The Post’s copy desk before appearing in print and online.
Even though his editors didn’t catch the error, Smith took full blame. He noted that he did not confirm the dinner with the White House. Checking the White House pool reports for details would have revealed that the president on Sunday took a helicopter to Camp David to join his wife and daughters, who had gone there on Friday.
“It’s embarrassing. It comes down to me not paying attention,” Smith said. “It’s my fault and I don’t want to pass the buck.”
“That’s something The Washington Post should not be getting wrong,” he said. “It’s something I’m absolutely ashamed of.”
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