A year into ombudsmanry, I am still amazed at the expertise of the readers of this newspaper. They make the task of reporting a daunting one, knowing that there is likely to be someone who knows whether you know what you're talking about. It's not just that two-thirds of The Post's readers have some college education or that more than half have household incomes above $50,000; it's also that they know the difference between a manta ray and a stingray; they know the difference between theories and hypotheses; they know the history of the area code system.
Herewith are some of the examples of readers' expertise and the errors of The Post's ways.
This passage about a Cold War-era B-52 navigator in an Aug. 8 magazine article caught the eye of a Maryland physician: "Payne kept in the pocket of his flight suit a lucky silver dollar, minted in the year he and Fay were married, 1944." Wrote the physician: "The only problem is that the United States minted no silver dollars from 1935, the last year of the Peace dollar, until 1971, the first year of the Eisenhower dollar (excluding some additional Peace dollars struck in 1964 and subsequently melted down). So there were no 1944 silver dollars. The coin was probably a 1944 Liberty Walking half-dollar, of which I have a couple."
When a writer claimed to have invented the Iowa caucus, however lightheartedly he meant it, he triggered this response from a retired political writer in Iowa: "The Iowa caucuses and conventions arrived with statehood in 1846, or 153 years ago, and have ebbed and flowed ever since. And we on the Register first conducted painstaking Iowa political straw polls back in the early 1950s."
Another old hand, a former copy editor, spotted a problem in an article about the newest dormitory for George Washington University students, a former hotel across from the Watergate. The article said that President Nixon had a golden retriever. Said the copy editor: "He didn't have a golden retriever. He had an Irish setter whose name was King Timahoe."
In a moving piece about tracing his Native American roots, Gary Lee wrote about having come across a daguerreotype of the Creeks being forced out of Alabama in the 1830s. The head of the photographic archives center at the National Museum of American History saw that something was amiss. "The fact is," he wrote, "that there are no photographs of `the Trail of Tears' of 1838 or events preceding it for the simple reason that photography, in the form of the daguerreotype, wasn't introduced into the U.S. until late 1839. And photography wasn't really capable of depicting an event such as Lee describes until the 1850s." Lee, now aware that the image he saw was not a daguerreotype, is now trying to figure out just what it was that he saw.
A story about the daughter of the man who created the Skippy of peanut butter fame stated that Skippy debuted in Life magazine in 1923. A reader pointed out, correctly, that the Henry Luce magazine that many of us grew up reading was founded in November 1936. That's led to a bit of back and forth involving the reporter, David Segal, the research department and the ombudsman. It turns out that Luce's Life magazine was not the first Life magazine. Who knew? Well, at least one Post staffer pointed out that "Luce bought the title a while after the first Life went out of business (and there's still a building in NYC with the ghost of the first magazine's name over the front door)."
The reaction of many reporters and editors is "So what?" when it comes to these details, for they do not see how such statements or misstatements mar otherwise worthy stories about important issues. This is, they say, a trivial pursuit. But it is worth remembering that a very smart readership expects The Post to always get it right.