So at long last — after two weeks’ absence pursuing the last details of our annual Business Directory — we can conclude our series of columns on the great mistakes that have accompanied our career in journalism. For those who just joined in, the series started with an innocent letter to the editor, pointing out a few typographical errors in a recent issue. That led to a column on the inevitability of mistakes in our business, and to some of the great blunders I committed on the road to U.S. 1.
Now is the time to focus on the great mistakes that hang on the wall of shame at this newspaper. And the trouble is . . . yes, the trouble is that there have been so many of them that I have a hard time picking one or two for the highlights reel.
And I am not even talking about business mistakes here. Another complete set of columns could be written on the mistakes I have made with respect to sales and marketing and personnel management. In fact, for any editorial workers who are reading this, I can tell you that the next time one of the guys from the business side of your publication walks into the room, holds up one of your typographical errors, and bellows about how much it costs the company to have these kind of errors, just remember that this guy has made plenty of his own mistakes — never seen by the general public — that cost the company a lot more.
But we are talking editorial mistakes here. Like the story in U.S. 1 just last week that told the fascinating story behind a major literary effort and directed the readers to meet the author Sunday afternoon at the bookstore. But as the listing at the very end of the story noted, the author was appearing Thursday night, not Sunday afternoon.
We are talking errors in context, like the one that might be brewing right now in our sister publication, the West Windsor-Plainsboro News. The talk there is of the latest tax revaluation and the impact it is having on property tax bills in Plainsboro compared to those in West Windsor. The story in the works has to do with changing the way school taxes are apportioned between two townships sharing a school district, from a system based on relative property valuation to one in which the costs are shared on a per-pupil basis. So I am asking our reporter to pursue all sorts of facets to this story, from the legal mechanism for making the change to the impact it would have. And then it dawns on me: Is anyone actually considering such a proposal, or is this something that only we in the newspaper office are considering?
We are talking about errors in fact, such as the time when we reported that a certain Nassau Street retailer was so untrustworthy that one neighbor “wouldn’t sell him the sweat off a flea” and that this individual was so onerous that when he moved into a neighborhood “he ruined the water.” Upon reflection (motivated by a $20 million libel suit filed by the retailer), we decided that it might not be literally true that this gentleman made the water go bad. But before we went to our checkbook to pay him off we did some research and discovered, among many other things, that the state Department of Consumer Affairs had banned him from opening a retail store in the first place.
Like all good mistakes, this one led to some wisdom: We discovered that quoting a potentially libelous comment by someone else made us as much liable as the person who made the remark.
But as I review the great mistakes of U.S. 1’s 20-year past, the ones that keep haunting me are the sins of omission. Back in the mid-1990s I was called to jury duty, and despite labeling myself a reporter when asked my occupation, I was selected to serve on a jury hearing a white collar crime case involving a Princeton businessman and a half dozen U.S. 1 area.
After the three-week trial was over, I began reconstructing courtroom moments on my laptop computer. Then the laptop was stolen. A mistake not to have a backup of my files, I know. A bigger mistake not to reconstruct the notes again and complete the story.
A few years ago the residents of Princeton Township were distraught over the killing — or culling — of deer in their midst. Should the deer be bothered at all. Should they be killed? If so, how, and to what degree would the deer suffer under the use of various measures. While this great debate raged, a young man ran off from a mental health clinic and slashed a township resident with a knife. Police rescued the resident and surrounded the attacker in the yard outside the house. When he lunged toward the officers he was shot to death. No one voiced any concern about how the man died, and whether or not he needed to die. I cared, but wrote nothing. Another mistake.
Do I learn from my mistakes? Of course. Do I do anything about it? Occasionally. Right now a prominent Princeton businessman is in deep, hot water over charges of criminal fraud. While this drama is being played out in a federal courtroom, I am sitting at my desk at Roszel Road, hoping to make sure that we spell Einstein’s name right on our cover. Another mistake? You tell me.