When Is A Correction Not Enough?

Categories: News

It was like any other correction, tucked away on page 2A in Saturday's Sun-Sentinel:

An article and headline on Page 1A of Wednesday's edition incorrectly reported that Broward Sheriff Ken Jenne did not disclose the 2001 sale of a Lake Worth condominium on his income tax return. In fact, the $20,000 sale was reported, and detailed on an attachment that Jenne filed with the Internal Revenue Service. The attachment was left off the publicly available return he filed with the state Commission on Ethics. On Thursday, Jenne submitted the missing documents to the state.

Jenne Under Fire

One might think that the incorrect assertion about Jenne's tax forms was a loose fact in the body of the text, a rather inconsequential bit of copy. But it wasn't. The false claim was the backbone of a story that dominated the front page of Wednesday's Sentinel. The headline: "Sale not reported on Jenne tax filing."

The lead of top investigative reporter Sally Kestin's story read: "Broward County Sheriff Ken Jenne did not report on his income tax returns the 2001 sale of a Lake Worth condominium for $20,000, his financial records show. ... The omission is the latest in a series of revelations about Jenne's finances."

Basically the Sentinel alleged that the sheriff had committed tax fraud. And it was dead wrong.

Jenne's attorney, David Bogenschutz, demanded that a retraction of the story run on the front page, in the same place the original story was published (see this for more about Bogenschutz's reaction). That place, of course, would have been above the fold, and in big bold print.

Now I don't think the Sentinel had to go that far, but it seems to me the newspaper should have offered readers more of an explanation, under a headline, of how it got a story totally wrong. And it probably should have offered an apology to Jenne for alleging he'd cheated on his taxes. It's only fair. If we journalists are going to slam politicians in print -- and Jenne has deserved many slams during the past couple of year -- we also owe them, at the very least, a mea culpa when we accuse them of committing a crime they didn't commit.

So how did the mistake happen? It started with a simple -- and quite innocent -- clerical error made by Jenne and/or his accountant. While the sheriff reported the sale to the IRS, the schedule detailing the condo sale was left off the tax return he filed with the state.

For all practical purposes, it looked like he'd failed to report the sale. And the Sentinel even sent the tax return to an outside forensic accountant for analysis. That accountant should have noticed that there was a missing schedule that corresponded to a number on the 1040. He didn't.

With a false sense of security from the outside accountant, Kestin called Bogenschutz the day before the story was to be published. The lawyer says he told her he would look into it. But the newspaper didn't wait for Jenne's response. It went with the story.

There was a simple, age-old explanation for the impatience to print: Competition. The Miami Herald had been breaking stories about apparently improper loans the sheriff had received from developers. As it was getting beaten, and soundly at that, Sentinel editors decided to put the investigative team on Jenne. And Wednesday's front-page story was the Sentinel's first big scoop on the sheriff.

It was, simply put, a story that couldn't wait. And it was as wrong as these hot South Florida summer days are long. The Sentinel, so eager to make a splash, didn't even add the usual mitigating language. There was no "apparently" or "seems." It stated the false claim as fact, in the lead headline on the front page no less. It's a cautionary tale for all journalists -- and the Sun-Sentinel should have told that tale to its readers rather than treating it like just another factual mistake.

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