Reporters looking for a dramatic, attention-getting lead for a "situationer" will grab at a startling anecdote. A Post reporter writing about the crime situation in Miami thought she had one in the gruesome report of an infant body that "had been cut open, stuffed with cocaine and sewn shut" by a drug smuggler.
In Miami, reporters immediately began pressing customs authorities to tell them about the incident, which The Post reported March 25 had occurred on a flight from Colombia. Post reporter Mary Thornton's story noted that "in Miami, federal agents are no longer surprised by such gruesome discoveries."
The district director of the Customs Service in Miami, Harry Carnes, was surprised. Indeed, even after questioning his most veteran supervisors, he could find no evidence of such an arrest in Miami. He went on television to denounce the story as inaccurate. "I don't know where the story came from," he told me. "This area gets a black eye as it is. The story was grotesque."
As we talked on the phone, a clue developed. Carnes, who has been in Miami only 18 months, recalled that Vann Capps, branch chief of the Customs Control and Enforcement Team, mentioned he had heard something like this during training 12 years ago.
Capps took his training at an inspectors' school at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., in 1973, and he remembered that one trainer, describing "scenarios on smuggling techniques based on actual incidents," told of a woman passenger flying from Colombia to Miami or New York with the dead infant stuffed with cocaine. Capps told me that he couldn't remember whether the instructor mentioned New York or Miami.
But, as head of the team checking cargoes arrivin at both the Miami airport and seaport, he had neither witnessed nor heard of any similar episode. "But it could have occurred," he added as an afterthought.
After my talks, I learned that Thornton, a reporter for national news, had gotten the anecdote from Courtland Milloy, a Metro columnist. Milloy told me he learned of the baby episode from an undercover narcotics agent in 1981. He tried without success to reach the agent for corroboration after The Post story appeared. (On Saturday, The Post ran a correction on the story.)
Earlier in March, one of Milloy's columns, "The 'Hit Doctor,' some anxious moments in the newsroom since it told about "One-Hand Diane," who injected heroin for a fee in Washington. Specifics as to her full name and address were not in the story, and some Post people were reminded of the infamous Janet Cooke experience, when a Post reporter invented a child addict in order to make her story spectacular.
Fortunately this time, the police, ordered by Mayor Marion Barry, tracked down "One-Hand Diane" and arrested her a few days after the dramatic Milloy column ran.
Narcotics smugglers, "hit doctors" and even undercover agents do not maintain offices, offer business cards or talk eagerly about their work, so reporters seeking to reflect the world in which we live sometimes have to deal with anonymity. The problems for editors, seeking to ensure that reporters' stories are soundly based, are many.
If the facts in a reporter's story raise questions, an editor can insist, "Show me," and demand corroboration -- or insist on deletion. I believe this would have been the wise course in the case of the Miami baby story.
If the facts in a published story are challenged, an editor can demand prompt corroboration -- or "have a correction ready for publication." In this case, participants were difficult to contact and, while adamantly denying the anecdote, kept leaving tantalizing doubts. Cares, the Miami district director, after several minutes of denying, added, "But this is not to say it didn't happen."
An insistence on corroboration would have led to the knowledge that -- at best -- this was an anecdote at least four years old (by Milloy's recall) and should have been known to officials in Miami (and wasn't). Miami has troubles enough without page-one coverage in The Post about events that may -- or may not -- have taken place there.