Pilot Error, The Sequel

If paper didn't screw up, why were letters to the editor altered?

In the course of teaching journalism at UC Irvine during the past several years, Bill Lobdell has answered dozens of student questions about newspaper ethics. But these days, the editor of the Newport Beach/Costa Mesa Daily Pilot is not answering a critical question: Why did his paper doctor as many as 13 recently published letters to the editor?

Last week in this column, we reported that Lobdell and the Pilot refused to concede that they botched coverage of a controversial Feb. 23 Newport-Mesa school-board meeting. In two front-page articles, the paper claimed locals George Grupe and Bruce Crawford had jointly attacked the multicultural teaching method of Newport Harbor High School's only black teacher, Angela Newman.

Contrary to the Pilot account, however, it was only Crawford who had bizarrely referenced the "espionage world" and effectively proclaimed Newman's 11th-grade classes a national threat. Grupe had specifically distanced himself from Crawford's shots at Newman and instead spoke about his concern that two of the district's history books offered students false and misleading information. A videotape review of the meeting proved Grupe's version correct.

Pilot news officials nevertheless disregarded Grupe's repeated protests and refused to run a correction. Lobdell assured the Weekly that he stood by the stories because he believed Grupe had implied support for Crawford's attack on Newman. The paper published five letters to the editor on March 2. Each blasted Crawford and Grupe.

But on March 4-with the Pilot still maintaining that it hadn't erred by coupling the two men-something strange happened. Published letters to the editor on that day almost exclusively focused on Crawford. If the Pilot was so comfortable with its public stance, why had it quietly deleted Grupe's name from as many as 13 letters to the editor?

Lobdell won't answer the question. Neither will Steve Marble, the Pilot's managing editor.

Pilot readers may not have a lot of answers either, but many are fuming that the paper tampered with their letters before publication.

"That's really suspect," said Costa Mesa resident Richard Faugno. "I wrote about both men collectively. . . . I used both names in my letter. They did not check with me before doing that."

Faugno, a mechanical engineer at a local defense/aerospace firm, told us that it would have been nearly impossible for him to have excluded Grupe because his letter to the editor was based entirely on the Pilot stories that lumped the two men together.

"I wasn't aware that [tampering with letters] was ethical," said Faugno. "I can't believe they did that."

The Pilot, a community paper owned by the Los Angeles Times, also published a letter from Robert Newsom, a professor at UCI's department of English and comparative literature. Newsom provided the Weekly with a copy of his original letter. In that letter, he observed: "What do I think of George Grupe and Bruce Crawford's proposal to keep multiculturalism out of history lessons? I think these folks need to go back to school."

Without consulting Newsom, the Pilot altered his sentence to read: "What do I think of Bruce Crawford's proposal to keep multiculturalism out of history lessons? I think he needs to go back to school."

The Pilot's Soviet-style manipulation of Newsom's letter wasn't precise, however. After deleting Grupe's name, they forgot to change one of the professor's sentences: "What galls me is that the Daily Pilot would describe such men as 'experts'" [my emphasis].

The whole affair stinks, according to Newsom. "I was annoyed by the Pilot's coverage [of the Newman controversy], anyway," he said. "They were playing up the story."

Newport Beach's Roger Sherwood doesn't share Newsom's positive views on multiculturalism. In fact, he basically agrees with Crawford's perspective, but that did not spare his letter from Pilot revisions. "I read both stories about the teaching in the classroom, and I have to wholeheartedly agree with Bruce Crawford," the paper claimed Sherwood said.

We asked him why he had singled out Crawford. "I didn't," Sherwood said. "The funny thing is that I had no reason to just mention Crawford. I know George Grupe; we recently talked at Coco's in Newport. Grupe's name was most definitely on my mind when I gave my comments. . . . I don't know the other gentleman."

Brian Bilder told us that his comments were also twisted. He said he named both Grupe and Crawford because "the Pilot made it seem that the two men were together." The Corona del Mar resident said: "I think if the Pilot made a mistake, they should own up to it. They have an obligation to be fair. When we try to cover things up-that's what really becomes the problem."

A letter from Judy Rosener, a world-renowned professor at UCI's graduate school of management, also had been retouched to omit any reference to Grupe. She read a copy of her original e-mail to the Weekly. She had also relied on the Pilot's account and specifically mentioned both men.

"I was so happy to learn that a teacher like Angela Newman was in Newport," said Rosener. "But I would like to know why the Pilot changed my letter."

An answer appears unlikely. If Lobdell and the Pilot can't bring themselves to issue a much-deserved correction for Grupe, they probably won't apologize for attempting to mask their mistake by altering letters from their readers.

 
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