Amateur astronomer Charles Lodowski unfolded Friday's Dallas Morning News and began frowning over his breakfast.
A front-page photo of Halley's Comet -- credited to the Soviet spacecraft Vega 1 -- didn't look right, recalled the 67-year-old Dallas pediatrician. In fact, it looked almost exactly like the cover of Lodowski's textbook for an astronomy course he was taking at a local college -- a photo shot at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz., in 1910.
"I told my wife, 'I wonder if those darned Soviets don't have a spaceship up there at all, and they're feeding the press these old photographs from our textbook,' " he said.
Thus Lodowski told his astronomy professor -- who then told the Dallas newspaper, which then told the Associated Press what had already become painfully clear to the worldwide news agency. As calls came in from Houston, San Francisco, Baltimore and beyond, the agency realized that the photo of Halley's Comet streaking across the front pages of many of the nation's newspapers Friday morning was more than 75 years old.
"It was an error and I understand how the error came about, and I regret it," said Hal Buell, assistant general manager for news photos at the Associated Press. "Accuracy is a top-drawer item here. Our record in photos is good, and I just don't like it at all."
Buell said that Thursday the AP became concerned about how slowly the Soviet photos were coming out of Moscow, so it turned to its London bureau where Soviet photographs were being shown on Britain's Independent Television News.
"You have to see the tape and you can understand how it happened," said Buell, explaining that correspondent John Snow used the old photograph as part of his news report on Vega 1.
"Anybody actually concentrating would have known that this photo was separate," said Snow, who is Washington correspondent for ITN. "But anybody listening with only half an ear and a camera over one eye could be forgiven. It was a color-enhanced computer photo and anybody who isn't a comet buff or astronomer could be forgiven for thinking it's a rather recent picture."
Indeed, a number of newspaper executives around the country must also be forgiven for picking the most dramatic of the wire service pictures transmitted that evening. The Washington Post used the picture on Page 1 in black and white. The Baltimore Sun, the Chicago Tribune, The Dallas Morning News, the Dallas Times Herald and The Miami Herald were among those who used the photo in all its blazing color on their front page.
The next day, AP did the only thing a reputable press organization can do when a journalistic belly-flop makes such an embarrassing splash. It wrote a correction that ran 14 paragraphs, which is fairly long by wire service standards. Most newspapers ran a small correction the next day, although some -- like the Dallas Times Herald -- used the mix-up as an opportunity to interview local astronomy addicts like Lodowski.
At the National Optical Astronomy Observatories in Tucson, Director of Information Carl Posey said the picture color-enhanced by their Kitt Peak observatory computers is "everywhere."
"There's a puzzle of it," he said. "I think it's even on a wine label somewhere."
However, this was the first time it was credited to the Soviets, he said. Thus the staff bulletin board these days features Friday's front page of The Arizona Daily Star. Under Halley's Comet in living, computerized color, in Russian-looking Cyrillic letters, somebody has added the caption "Credit NOAO."