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Embarrassing error on Obamas' Valentine's dinner

By Andy Alexander

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.”

By Andy Alexander  | February 15, 2010; 3:39 PM ET
 
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Comments

Does the Post care about errors? DOes the Post try to get stuff right? I wonder.

Posted by: adamclymer | February 15, 2010 5:45 PM | Report abuse

Smith has all the makings of a "global warming scientist." He has the same tenuous grasp of dates and facts.

Posted by: WashingtonDame | February 15, 2010 6:38 PM | Report abuse

What ever happened to checking sources? Rule one of journalism - if you didn't see it yourself, you need 3 independent sources to confirm. At least that's how it used to be....

Posted by: jan_ziff | February 15, 2010 6:40 PM | Report abuse

On the bright side, if he dropped the h, Mr. Smith's name would be a palindrome.

Posted by: lostinthemiddle | February 15, 2010 7:53 PM | Report abuse

The Washington Post continues its tradition of printing these little corrections of utterly inconsequential errors in the style page while overlooking entirely the fact that the extreme right wing Op-Ed pages continue to embarrass the newspaper on a daily basis.

Your columnists George Will and William Kristol have been corrected over and over again by critics for the most astonishing outright lies, and about things that actually matter.

And here we are, reading about a Valentine's Day photo that was mislabeled.

The WAPO just added another extreme right wing George Bush staffer to its opinion pages.

Meanwhile the "Ombudsman" concerns himself with the style section.

It's unbelievable.

Posted by: BillEPilgrim | February 16, 2010 12:37 AM | Report abuse

The Ombudsman of the Washington Post devotes an entire column to the revelation that a reporter made a mistake about where the Obama's had their Valentine Day dinner.

He does this with no sense of self-awareness, shame, or irony. On a newspaper that is increasingly viewed as the chief mouthpiece of an isolated, out-of-touch, inside-the-Beltway crowd that is clueless about what's going on in this country and about their role in bringing it about. On a newspaper that not long ago looked into the abyss of a major scandal brought about by its own publisher's dumb idea about reconstituting 18th Century salons.

Mr Alexander clearly has a lot of fun at work. Isn't it wonderful to have a job where you can do pretty much what you please, no matter how irrelevant.

The Hiatt-Weymouth-Alexander virus has obviously taken root and is growing exponentially in the offices of the Washington Post. Rescue is probably no longer an option.

Posted by: tbarksdl | February 16, 2010 5:32 AM | Report abuse

Jeez, folks, did you see that Smith apologized? And he did it in a class way - more directly than nearly anyone else in the public sphere seems to be able to do. This is a mistake that any of you, sooner or later, would make if you had this job. I'd not tie this to wider issues at the Post or anywhere else and cut this guy a break already.
Robert

Posted by: easymac | February 16, 2010 7:29 AM | Report abuse

Is this what the ombudsman is for? Totally inconsequential small-bore stuff? While the Post publishes front-page propaganda articles for the climate denialists?

Posted by: chase-truth | February 16, 2010 8:17 AM | Report abuse

At least he didn't quote anonymous sources.

Sorry Tim, back to the mailroom.

Posted by: spamsux1 | February 16, 2010 1:37 PM | Report abuse

I'm sure you will think you are doing a stellar job Mr. Alexander Kisser Ombudsman just because both the left and the right attack you.

Or is some of this commentary feedback on the up and up or just for the birds!?

Posted by: adamnescot1 | February 16, 2010 5:30 PM | Report abuse

There's so much wrong here that it illustrates perfectly why the Post richly deserves its imminent death. Your newsgathering process consists of an intern trolling Google? What do your reporters do? And whatever Google puts at the top must be the most important? And you have a supervisory editor who doesn't have the sense to say "Did anybody call the White House? Or the restaurant? Or the national staff [the Post's White House reporter would likely have been traveling with the President]? Did anybody call anybody? Does anybody else have this?" Even if the story had been accurate, why would you lift something straight from another publication without confirming it yourself? Maybe senior managers just don't care what shows up in the Style section.

Posted by: tourist011 | February 17, 2010 1:51 AM | Report abuse

Did I just read that an entire story was generated from a cursory Google search?

Posted by: Wallenstein | February 22, 2010 5:15 PM | Report abuse

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