Gray Lady flunks Journalism 101

The New York Times confessed on Tuesday that some of its writers and editors are habitually and inexcusably careless and/or incompetent.

I realize I devote a lot of space to the malpractice of journalism at the Times. That’s partly because I pay it $20 a month and expect my money’s worth, but mostly because if the Times totally turns to shit, we might as well flush the entire business.

When I was teaching first-year journalism students, they received a failing grade on a story if they spelled a proper noun wrong.

Yet we get what follows from the Times’s style maven, Philip B. Corbett, in a column titled After Deadline, Newsroom Notes on Usage and Style:

“When readers point out errors – and they do, frequently – a common refrain goes like this: If you can’t even get the name right, how do I know whether the rest of this story is accurate?”

You don’t know.

“Names are the single biggest source of errors for us. So far this month we’ve had to correct 65 errors in people’s names – 33 surnames and 32 given names.”

Now that Al Hirschfeld is dead – I may have misspelled his name since my only source was his obit in the Times – readers who enjoyed looking for Ninas in his caricatures can now search for Neenas throughout the paper.

“Of course, we are publishing more copy, more quickly, than ever before. But with the entire web instantly accessible, it’s also easier and faster than ever to check and double-check.”

Writers might slow down and get it right if every one who misspelled a name was fired.

“Some basic reminders for reporters and editors:”

Thus, we begin a New York Times checklist similar to the one I gave my students.  

  • In every interview, ask the subject to spell his or her name.
  • When checking online, be sure the source is reliable; don’t assume all Google results are definitive.
  • Don’t just check how we spelled the name last time – our archive is, among other things, a minefield of past errors.
  • Copy editors should check as many names as humanly possible.”

Or hire better humans.

  • If you couldn’t double-check before the first deadline, do it afterward.
  • Be wary of names with common variants — Stephen and Steven, O’Neil and O’Neill and O’Neal.
  • Don’t rely on memory.”

You mean it’s not Arthur Oaks Sulzburger?

“Here’s a sampling of recent missteps that might shake the faith of any reader. On Oct. 14 alone, we had three corrections for given names:

  • An earlier version of this article misstated the given name of the father of Charlotte and Stella. He is Matt, not Mac.”

Don’t call me Mac, mac.

  • “An earlier version of this article misspelled the given name of one of the owners of Mamagyro. She is Vicki Giannopoulos, not Vicky.”

You got Giannopoulos right — and not Vicki!

  • “An earlier version of this post misstated a composer’s given name. He is Heinz Holliger, not Hans”

You should have called the secret police to demand his papers.

“And on Oct. 2 alone, we had to correct three surnames:

  • “An earlier version of this article misspelled the surname of a columnist based in Alabama; he is Kyle Whitmire, not Whitmore.”

This guy has had his byline in your paper, for Christ’s sake.

  • “An earlier version of this article misspelled part of the name of a government minister. He is Miguel Poiares Maduro, not Miguel Poiares Maduros.”

Ah, the singular Mr. Maduro.

  • “An article on Thursday about Mexico’s most recent auction of offshore oil leases misstated the surname of a lawyer with Holland & Knight who commented on the results. He is José Antonio Prado, not Pardo.”

Si, Don Pardo de Sabado Noche en Directo died last year.

***

The executive editor of the Times, Dean Baquet, appears to be a publicity junkie.

Instead of defending his paper with an appropriate statement – We stick by our story, or We’ll fix it – Baquet can’t resist talking to other news outlets or skirmishing with the Times’s public editor.

On Monday, he told the Washington Post that Times columnist Maureen Dowd did not fabricate a deathbed scene between Joe Biden and his son, Beau.

Since she never wrote that – others, including the Times, later embellished Dowd’s reporting – why bother.

This came a week after Baquet dueled with Amazon over a front-page hatchet job the Times published in August about working conditions at the giant retailer.

It was no surprise that Jay Carney, Obama’s former press secretary and now the chief flack at Amazon, wrote a 1,300-word indictment seeking to discredit a few of the Times’s key sources.

That Baquet deigned to fire back with a 1,300-word defense confirms the piece is indefensible.

Didn’t he have his fill of this story playing point-counterpoint with his paper’s public editor, Margaret Sullivan, last summer?

Sullivan concluded the Amazon “article was driven less by irrefutable proof than by generalization and anecdote. For such a damning result, presented with so much drama, that doesn’t seem like quite enough.”

Baquet’s counterpoint: “I reject the notion that you can report a story like this in any way other than with anecdotes. You talk to as many people as possible and you draw conclusions. That’s the only way to approach it.”

Why do I hear Dan Aykroyd shouting, “Jane, you ignorant slut”?

A flash back to Jackie’s ‘last dash’

My first baseball reporting assignment was Jackie Robinson’s funeral.

On October 27, 1972, a taxi dropped me off in front of the grand entrance to Riverside Church in Manhattan. It was a sunny day with a bit of a chill, World Series weather.

I waded into the crowd outside, celebrity mourners on a Friday morning in their best Sunday suits, middle-aged men looking like they were gathered for an old-timers’ banquet.

I spotted Pee Wee Reese being interviewed by Howard Cosell. Nearby, Roger Kahn was chatting with Don Newcombe.

Everyone knew Jackie had been wasting away for years, blinded and crippled by diabetes and other ailments.

But only nine days earlier, he had been in Cincinnati for the second game of the World Series between the Reds and the Oakland A’s.

Wearing a dark suit, his hair white, he had thrown out the ceremonial pitch – to Johnny Bench – from the commissioner’s box in the stands.

The Series ended, the A’s won, and two days later Robinson died of a heart attack at the age of 53.

I was a 25-year-old reporter for UPI. I’d grown up in the city, a Brooklyn fan, like my dad.

He’d taken me to games at Ebbets Field. Robinson and Reese, Campanella and Snider, Furillo and Hodges were my childhood heroes.

In the late ’60s, with the Dodgers long gone, I drifted to San Francisco in the summer after the Summer of Love, discovered passions other than sports.

But here I was in the autumn of 1972. Back with the Boys of Summer. Feeling like a kid again.

My press pass got me inside a VIP enclave, which was roped off and guarded by the NYPD. A church office had been converted into a reception room.

I wandered among the greats of the game. There’s Hank Aaron! I shouted inside my head. There’s Willie Mays! Ernie Banks! Campy in his wheelchair.

I wanted to go up to these guys and talk to them. But I really had nothing to say, nothing appropriate for this moment or any other. So I stood and gawked until it was time to file into the church.

I was working, though my duties were not defined. The main man on the story was UPI sports editor Milt Richman. I was to cover any news angles, though I was not sure what they might be.

About 3,000 people filled every pew inside the vast Gothic Revival church.

I sat next to Will Grimsley, AP’s lead sportswriter, a tall, thickset Tennessean who politely introduced himself, then sat scribbling notes on a large writing tablet. He picked up his pace when a young black preacher delivered the eulogy, his booming voice and theatrical style gripping the audience.

“In his last dash, Jackie stole home,” said Reverend Jesse Jackson, pausing, before picking up speed, as if he too was racing to the plate.

“Pain, misery and travail have lost. Jackie is saved. His enemies can leave him alone. His body will rest, but his spirit and his mind and his impact are perpetual and as affixed to human progress as are the stars in the heavens, the shine in the sun and the glow of the moon.”

It was a hard act to follow. And nobody did. As Rachel Robinson and her family filed out behind the coffin, we all stood. Grimsley stretched and looked around the cavernous church.

He tapped me on the shoulder. “See that guy over there, that’s Bill Veeck,” Grimsley said, pointing to a man in baggy chinos and a ratty gray sweatshirt, standing alone in the back, sobbing into a handkerchief.

Veeck was known as an outlaw team owner, famous for such stunts as sending a midget up to bat to draw a walk. But he had also signed the American League’s first black player, Larry Doby, and gave Satchel Page a chance to pitch in the majors.

Grimsley wandered off to talk to Veeck, while I went to find Richman.

“I want you to go to the cemetery,” the sports editor instructed. “I’ve arranged space for you in one of the cars in the funeral procession. Call me when you can with notes and quotes.”

The route to the cemetery in Brooklyn was mapped out to travel through New York’s most heavily populated, badly scarred black neighborhoods. And these were tense and violent times in a city where the loudest and most militant voices did not count Jackie Robinson among their leaders.

But, as the hearse rolled slowly through Harlem, quiet, respectful crowds lined the sidewalks. Children in school uniforms stood at attention. Women sat on stoops, heads buried in their hands. Old men leaned against lampposts and wept.

It was a similar scene in Brooklyn, in Bedford-Stuyvesant.

By the time we reached Cypress Hills Cemetery, it was near dusk. The weather had changed.

Dark clouds moved in as the pallbearers, Jackie’s former teammates – Reese, Newcombe, Jim Gilliam and Ralph Branca – Doby and Bill Russell, carried the casket to the gravesite.

I stood beside a tree, apart from the scene, added some notes to the ones I’d written during the drive, found a payphone near the cemetery gate and called Richman before catching a ride back to Manhattan.

***

This story and many others like it are in my unpublished memoir of a life in journalism titled: Burning Bridges.

Bautista swings, Times whiffs

The dumbest story idea I ever heard was from my city editor at the Toronto Sun, who, in 1977, wanted me to go to Newfoundland, club a baby seal to death and write about the experience.

I laughed, went back to my desk, and laughed some more.

That should have been the upshot of whatever transpired recently between a New York Times sportswriter and his editor.

Instead, the reporter traveled to Atlantic Canada, packing a hopelessly dumb story idea.

The premise: Jose Bautista is nicknamed Joey Bats and there is a place in Newfoundland called Joe Batt’s Arm. What’s up with that?

Here’s the classic shaggy dog story, published in Saturday’s paper:

JOE BATT’S ARM, Newfoundland — At first glance at a map, you wonder if this little fishing hamlet on a remote island off the northern coast of Newfoundland is playing a gag on everyone.

Maps are notorious pranksters.

After all, Canadians are discovering amusing ways to celebrate the Toronto Blue Jays’ return to the playoffs for the first time in 22 years. The CN Tower in Toronto is lit in blue lights, and a famous coffee chain is selling Blue Jays doughnuts.

Forget all those famous comedians from the True North. The Hogtown Phallus and Tim Hortons are truly representative of what amuses Canadians.

So why couldn’t Joe Batt’s Arm, a little town on Fogo Island, have changed its name to honor the team’s biggest star, Jose Bautista, a.k.a. Joey Bats.

Note: Inquiries concerning geographical nomenclature in Canada, proposals concerning new names, or changes in the form, spelling or application of existing names may be submitted in writing to the appropriate Geographical Names Board of Canada member.

Perhaps the island residents who watched Game 5 of the American League division series saw the dramatic pose that Bautista struck after hitting a mammoth three-run home run. He chucked his bat defiantly toward the Texas Rangers’ dugout, his left arm remaining shoulder high, parallel to the ground and curved like the cove that defines the shape of this town …

A satellite image of the cove was also used by Michelangelo to fix the angle of David’s left arm.

It’s a natural. Draw up the papers, a quick proclamation at Town Hall and voilà: Joe Batt’s Arm.

Dear Borough President Diaz: Please draw up a quick proclamation to change the name of the Bronx to A-Rod’s Syringe.

Who would notice in a country with towns named Saskatoon, Stoner, Skookumchuck and St.-Louis-du-Ha! Ha!

Or in a country with towns named Cut and Shoot (Texas), Frankenstein (Missouri), Hell (Michigan) and War (West Virginia).

There is only one problem.

“It’s not named for him,” said Edmund Decker, a 72-year-old retiree and former fisherman who was born on Fogo Island.

Mr. Decker is not the only source of this information. You could have stayed in New York and phoned any of the 35 million other Canadians who know there is no town in their country named for Jose Bautista.

Enough.

This isn’t one of those pitiful how-I-failed-to-get-the-story stories. It’s an I-know-there-is-no-story-but-I’m-going-to-write-it-anyway-and-the-Times-is-going-to-publish-it-anyway story.

It goes on and on, nearly 1,000 words, much of it devoted to non-Bautista detours, including: the legend of Joe Batt, who supposedly washed ashore from one of Captain Cook’s ships; the sad state of the cod fishery, and the exotic accent of Newfoundlanders.

There is also an ad for “the recently built Fogo Island Inn, a modern, environmentally friendly luxury hotel with a stunning view of the North Atlantic.”

Throw that shaggy dog a $1,000-a-night bone.

The story concludes: “Just west of Fogo Island, there is Too Good Arm. It just has to be named after the Mets’ pitching staff.”

Has to be. No question.

And what about all the places possibly named for Mets’ hitting star Daniel Murphy?

Get the Times travel office working on the next road trip, with stops in:

Murphy Cove and Murphy Lake, Nova Scotia; Murphy Settlement and Murphy Corner, New Brunswick; Murphy Beach and Murphy Corners, Ontario; Murphy Creek, Saskatchewan; Murphy, Georgia; Murphy, Idaho; Murphy, Iowa; Murphy Cross Roads, Alabama; Murphy’s Corner, Arkansas; Murphy Ford, Murphy Fork and Murphysville, all in Kentucky.

Don’t forget Matt Harvey, the Mets’ starter in Tuesday’s Game One of the World Series.

Better book that trip now to Harvey, New Brunswick; Harvey, Arkansas; Harvey, Illinois; Harvey, Iowa; Harvey, Kentucky, and Harvey, Maine.

What about Syndergaard, Saskatchewan? DeGrom, Louisiana? Cespedes, Puerto Rico?

I made up those three.

Shouldn’t matter.

Killing Marilyn

A confession: I killed a woman every year for 11 years.

It’s okay. No crime here. Don’t call the cops.

It was the same woman. Eleven times. And, as far as I know, she’s still breathing, just turned 80.

Sometime along the way, I started charging her famous husband with the murder. He provided a stimulating suspect.

I did this for the benefit of my first-year, post-grad journalism students at Humber College.

(One of them recognized the added benefit of being able to check facts with the deceased. More on that later.)

In any case, I was able to bleed two important assignments out of the exercise: How to write a murder story, and how to write an obituary.

At Humber, there was a recommended textbook for my classes. I never used it. Told my kids not to waste their money.

It took me a couple of years to combine what best engaged the students and honed their reporting and writing skills. Sometimes, we went outside to play. Recess, with note-taking.

In the early autumn, I’d lead them to a patch of grass at the foot of a building on the Toronto campus.

They’d form a scrum at a respectful distance and I’d begin, wearing my teacher’s cap: “It’s 11:30 at night. We’re on The Esplanade in Toronto. I’m the chief of police. And the chief being here means it’s a big story.”

I’d switched to my cop hat: “At approximately 9:45 p.m., officers responded to the scene and found a woman, determined to be deceased, on the sidewalk.”

They’d nudge out of me that the woman dropped from a 10th-story penthouse balcony above us.

Did she fall or was she pushed?

“We have determined it was a homicide – not an accident or suicide.”

They would prod for details. I’d stick to my guns

Finally, they’d move on: Do you know the identity of the victim?

I would pause before reading from my own notebook: “Marilyn Lastman, DOB September 30th, 1935, of this address – 22 The Esplanade.”

(All this was factual – except she wasn’t dead.)

The name elicited a few titters from the students, though most didn’t know Marilyn Lastman from Maryon Pearson.

But they were emboldened with getting the chief to identify the victim.

What’s the suspect’s name?

Again, I’d go to my notebook: “Melvin Lastman, DOB March 9, 1933, also of this address.”

That always drew a laugh, since Mel Lastman, in his two terms as mayor, was a pint-sized version of Rob Ford, equally embarrassing but considerably less deranged.

I’d add these details:

  • The Lastmans, with their two sons and their families, had earlier in the evening had a belated birthday dinner for Marilyn in the penthouse apartment.
  • The guests all left about 90 minutes before the incident.
  • Mel and the late Marilyn were both dressed in nightclothes when police arrived.

After returning to the classroom, I had the students go online to track down phone numbers for the Lastman sons.

One student would inevitably figure out that Dale Lastman, a lawyer, was the easier to locate.

We’d playact the phone call, with me giving them a cliché statement: “This is a great tragedy for our family. We would hope the public will honor our mother’s memory, and that the media will understand that our father is innocent until proven guilty.”

Sticking to our pretend timeline, which now put us after midnight, I’d give them a half-hour to bang out a 250-word story to fill a space left in the final edition of their newspaper.

For out next class, I would tell them, they should have all the material required to write an obit on Marilyn Lastman.

“Not everything is available online. There is a book – you know, the thing with pages made out of paper – that has nearly all the information you’ll need. I suggest you get together and find it and share it.”

Every October, from 2002 to 2012, Toronto-area libraries loaned out every copy of The Glitter Girls by Rosemary Sexton.

The reason I chose Marilyn Lastman as the body on the sidewalk was because she was, in her time, well known in the city as a colorful, quotable character. She often upstaged her husband and made her own headlines, most prominently when she faked her own kidnapping and was arrested for shoplifting.

But she was not important enough to rate a 1,000-word obit. I didn’t want these kids writing long stories, partly to teach them discipline but mostly because I didn’t want to be marking endless pages of double-spaced crapola.

Before one class, when they would have the entire two hours, under my guidance, to write the obit, a student approached to say she’d phoned Marilyn.

“What did you ask her?”

“I just checked a couple of facts from the book,” she said.

“Did you identify yourself as a journalism student?”

“Of course.”

Did she ask why you were calling?”

“Not really.”

“Did you tell her it was for her obituary?”

“Of course not.”

“How long did you talk to her?”

“About ten minutes.”

“What did you talk about?”

“Not much. She seemed happy with the attention.”

Marilyn Lastman was 80 a few weeks ago.

Mazel tov.

And thanks for providing such a rich subject for hundreds of journalism students to feast on.

***

This story and many others like it are in my unpublished memoir of a life in journalism titled: Burning Bridges.

Keeping up with the Trudeaus

There seems to be much love lost since Justin Trudeau delivered the eulogy that served as his political coming-out party.

Forget that there was no “je t’aime, papa” in his victory speech Monday night. He never even mentioned his papa – or his mama.

But he did acknowledge Pierre Trudeau’s parenting skills with a promise to his three kids.

“I can tell you there will be difficult moments as the children of the prime minister,” he said in French, “but dad will be there for you.”

Sounds like his dad was mostly MIA when Justin was in his playpen at 24 Sussex.

When he was not yet three, during the spring and summer of 1974, I probably saw more of Pierre and Margaret Trudeau than their kids did. As a reporter for UPI, I certainly witnessed the prime minister and his child bride at their worst and weirdest.

I first caught up with them during Trudeau’s campaign against the underwear baron, Bob Stanfield.

They were in some small-town hockey arena in B.C, where Margaret was pushed on stage to do her best Nellie Forbush imitation: I’m in love, I’m in love, I’m in love, I’m in love, I’m in love with a wonderful guy.

It played as equal parts sweet and sickening, this 25-year-old standing at the podium, asking people to vote for the geezer she married.

There were reprises across the country. Audiences lapped it up. Trudeau won re-election on July 8th.

The next time I saw the couple together was a month later, during a state visit by King Hussein of Jordan.

The king had flown his royal jetliner to the annual air show in Abbotsford, B.C., where he and his third wife, Queen Alia, hooked up with the Trudeaus.

That evening, I sat in the bar of the Hotel Vancouver with the rest of the press corps while the middle-aged monarch and his young wife, and the middle-aged PM and his young wife, were upstairs in a suite. They could have been entertaining the Manson Family for all I cared.

I was taking too much pleasure watching that scumbag Richard Nixon resign on the TV in the bar.

Soon after, I transferred from Vancouver to UPI’s Canadian headquarters in Montreal.

I was in the office that September when one of our reporters in Ottawa called with a tip that Margaret was in the psychiatric wing of the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal, and that her husband was on his way to visit her

By this time, I had covered Trudeau often enough that he recognized me.

So, when he arrived at the hospital with a two-man security detail – they stayed in the car – he knew the one guy waiting for him was a reporter.

“What are you doing here?” he snapped.

“How’s your wife doing?” I responded.

“And how would that be your business?”

I tried to make the case for the public’s right to know. He countered with his best harrumphs and shrugs of dismissal. I followed him into the lobby, to the elevator doors.

“Fuck off,” the prime minister of Canada said.

My comeback was to call the desk and file a bulletin advisory on the UPI wire that Trudeau was at the hospital. That brought a small army of reporters and camera crews to the Royal Vic.

Trudeau kept us waiting for two hours before – surprise – emerging with Margaret.

They took a little stroll. We trooped after them. Then he surprised us again.

He guided Margaret to a scenic spot, a lovely backdrop of just-turning leaves on a late summer day, and nodded to his wife, indicating she was ready to take questions.

How are you feeling? a radio reporter asked.

“I’ve been in the hospital for the past 10 days,” she said in nearly a whisper, “under psychiatric care for severe emotional stress.”

What do you ask next: How nuts are you?

She looked very pale and seriously stoned. The prime minister had handed us a sedated and wounded kitten. Any question we’d ask would carry the stench of blood dripping from the mouth of a jackal.

“Thank you all for your concern and I hope you’ll leave me alone for a while,” she concluded.

We did – for a few years anyway, until she went on the lam after a tryst in Toronto with the Rolling Stones.

By then, in 1977, I too was in The Big Smoke, working for the Sun, the Tory tabloid with a rabid hate for Trudeau.

Another young reporter and I were called into the boardroom, where all the paper’s top editors were assembled.

“We’d like you two to go to New York,” said one.

“To find Maggie Trudeau,” said another.

“To get the real story on why she’s run away from Pierre,” said a third.

The real story, we were told, was Margaret bolted because her husband wanted her to join him in a gay and lesbian sex orgy at 24 Sussex.

These guys were nuttier than she was.

“Don’t worry,” I told my colleague after the meeting, “we’ll go to New York, check into The Plaza, order room service, interview a few doormen and bartenders, and come home in a couple of days.”

And that’s what we did.

***

This story and many others like it are in my unpublished memoir of a life in journalism titled: Burning Bridges.

Sergeant Pepper schools journalism students

The one time I interviewed Pat Conroy, 20 years ago, he said no story worth a damn ever began with a weather report.

Ever since, I’m put off by all opening sentences of a climatological nature.

But, since this is no longer the beginning, I can tell you it’s a chilly autumn Thursday in suburban Mississauga, sunshine on the late-turning maples and birch outside my office window.

I am reminded on such mornings of my years teaching journalism at Humber College in Toronto.

Early each fall, soon after I met my first-year post-graduate students – I taught fundamentals of news writing and reporting – I’d arrive in the classroom and announce: “We’re going on a field trip. Grab your notebook and a pen and follow me.”

It was a short walk to the Humber Arboretum. I’d be gleeful if it was raining.

They’d trail me down a hill to the edge of a small pond, where I’d wait until they huddled around.

“It’s 5 a.m.,” I would start. “You were home sleeping when you got a call from your newsroom and told to get out to Humber College, that something was going on – it was all over the police scanner.

“You arrived and saw a couple of cop cars with lights flashing on the road up there. You asked one of the cops what was going on and he told you to talk to the sergeant. That’s me. Now ask your questions.”

“What happened here?”

“That’s not your first question,” I’d reply.

They tried a few more. I would refuse to answer.

Finally, one student would come up with: “May I have your name, please.”

“Yes,” I’d say, “it’s Staff Sergeant Peter Pepper.”

That would get them going – Sergeant Pepper.

“What happened here, sergeant?”

“As you can see,” I’d reply, pointing toward the pond, “there is a car just visible in the water.”

Educated in cop-speak, I would give them the bare bones of the story: two young people in a stolen convertible had rolled down the hill and crashed into the pond.

It usually took the students about 45 minutes to get all the details I was prepared to give – more info than a typical cop would blurt out at a crime scene.

I’d keep the Beatles theme going to amuse them, identifying the suspects as James Paul McCartney and Lucy Skye Diamond.

There was always a kid with a tape recorder – this was before phones did everything but cook breakfast – and I’d instruct them all to learn to take notes and not waste time transcribing every quote before writing.

There was always a kid who wanted to solve the crime. “Sorry, Columbo,” I’d say, “you’re just going to have to stick to what I give you.”

(I called one student Columbo for the rest of the school year. It made her laugh.)

I would give them something to chew on. “The evidence suggests there may have been some hanky-panky going on, that the man and woman may have been otherwise occupied just before the crash.”

I’d refused to answer any followup questions on the specifics of the hanky-panky.

When we returned to the classroom, I would ask: Is there anyone you want to call?

I’d play the part of flacks for a hospital and the college.

I’d always give them a limit on the number of words to tell a story. This one was 200.

“You should be able to write a great story in fewer than 500 words,” I often told students. “You could write the Crucifixion in 500 words. For the Second Coming, I’ll give you 1,000.”

I helped them with their leads on the car-in-pond story. The next day, after I marked up and graded their efforts, I gave them a more polished version:

TORONTO – An amorous young couple in a stolen sports car went on a wild ride that climaxed before dawn Friday in a pond on the Humber College campus, police said.

“The evidence suggests there may have been some hanky-panky going on, that the man and woman may have been otherwise occupied just before the crash,” Staff Sgt. Peter Pepper said at the scene.

Officers found the “partially clothed” pair on the bank of the pond at about 4 a.m., he said.

They were parked in the new Audi TTS Roadster, with the engine running, when it slipped into gear, rolled about 40 metres down a hill – clipping bushes, a tree and plowing through a low fence and bulrushes – before plunging into the shallow, murky water.

They were taken in custody to nearby Etobicoke General Hospital, treated and released, the hospital said.

The red convertible had been reported stolen from a Toronto dealership at about 9 p.m. Thursday.

James Paul McCartney, 22, of Toronto, and Lucy Skye Diamond, 19, of Mississauga, were charged with possession of stolen property.

The college said neither is a student at Humber.

-30-

Word count: 186

Over the years, when I saw my former students, they often reminded me of our trip to the pond.

It always made me smile.

***

This story and many others like it are in my unpublished memoir of a life in journalism titled: Burning Bridges.

Blue Jays win, viewers too

The opening act of the playoffs was ultimately rewarding for the 2015 Toronto Blue Jays.

On my TV, it also played out as the best performance of the season.

After six months of uninterrupted gibberish from Buck Martinez and Pat Tabler on Sportsnet, there were moments of lucid commentary from the TV announcers during the Jays series win over the Texas Rangers.

The Fox crew was semi-competent – Harold Reynolds providing the semi – and fascinating in its attempts to speak Canadian.

On the MLB Network, Costas & Company were especially erudite in a dissertation on the relationship between baseball and short people.

Here are my most noteworthy TV flashes – with an italicized assist from Pal Hal on the Left Coast – from the Toronto-Texas series that wrapped up Wednesday:

GAME ONE

The 90-minute pre-game extravaganza on Sportsnet featured all the usual baseball talkers, plus Don Cherry, who brought his bully pulpit to the SkyDome.

The 81-year-old blowhard said Major League Baseball ordered the roof shut because the Jays play better when it’s open.

“It’s a Canadian conspiracy commissioner Manfred’s got against Canada that he’s got this dome closed,” Cherry blustered. “It’s absolutely rigged.”

***

Pal Hal: These TD bank “Stir the Pot” TV ads are beyond laughable – trying to connect the actor/customer getting a loan with the multimillionaire Jays.

***

The Fox crew – Kenny Albert, Harold Reynolds and Tom Verducci – are yucking it up in the first inning.

Verducci: “Harold, you haven’t been here for a while, you were worried you didn’t speak Canadian.”

Albert, otherwise a pro, gets in a pickle when he tries to speak Canadian – Tor-on-TOE – and mangles with word “organ-EYE-Say-tion, as they say north of the border.”

***

It came as relief when the TV schedule came out with Buck and Pat not on the playoff roster. That Harold Reynolds has access to a Fox mike is inexcusable but a small price to pay to be able to deactivate the mute button for the first time in months, and enjoy some of the sounds of baseball.

***

The scores: Rangers 5, Jays 3; 386 hockey promos on Rogers Sportsnet.

GAME TWO

Bob Costas is in the booth for the MLB Network, expressing admiration for a fellow Lilliputian, Marcus Stroman, throwing warmup pitches in the top of the first.

“He says he is not phased by big games – and he acknowledges this himself – perhaps because he’s a diminutive guy by big league pitching standards and had been frequently told he would not make it.”

***

After a Jays season with Buck and Pat in the booth, having Costas and Jim Kaat handle Game Two was akin to the junior high theater club being relieved by the Broadway cast.

***

Top of the third, Costas throws to his diminutive reporter at field level.

“Marcus Stroman, five-foot-eight, kind of appeals to me own heart,” says Ken Rosenthal.

“You and me both,” says Costas.

“Absolutely. And guess what? His personal motto is HDMH – height doesn’t measure heart,” Rosenthal says of Stroman, who delivers a perfect pitch.

“A called third strike,” says Costas, “should inspire those who don’t top six-feet even further.”

“And my boyhood idol,” adds the 6-4 Kaat, “one of the little lefties of all time – Bobby Shantz – was 5-6, the 1952 MVP.”

Costas tells us Stroman is wearing the No. 6 to honor his grandmother, who died last March 6, a piece of news I don’t recall being delivered by the boys at Sportsnet.

***

How refreshing and enjoyable to have all of the commentary delivered with the right inflection, in a cadence that most English-speaking fans can relate to, delivering information with insight and humor.

***

Costas recites the full name of the Toronto catcher – Russell Nathan Coltrane Jeanson Martin Jr. – and riffs on a John Coltrane number when he concludes:

“We can say that Martin has helped the Jays take some ‘Giant Steps’ in the American League East this year.”

***

Tweaking the pace of the game, Costas says in the 13th inning: “About four hours ago Josh Donaldson hit a home run.”

Kaat, not missing a beat, skewers MLB for the odd 12:45 game time: “It’s nice that they start these extra inning games early.”

***

The scores: Rangers 6, Jays 4 in 14 innings; 643 hockey promos on Sportsnet.

GAME THREE

In the top of the fourth in Arlington, Jose Bautista lines a ball into the stands along the first base line, which for some inexplicable reason, prompts Reynolds to say:

“We were talking about foul balls in the stands up in Toronto. Because there’s not a lot of people that grew up playing baseball in Canada, they’re not used to catching a lot of balls hit into the stands.”

***

The scores: Jays 5, Rangers 1; 3,863 angry tweets from Canadians who say they can catch a baseball; 287 hockey promos on Sportsnet.

GAME 4

Before the game, Reynolds apologizes to ham-handed Canadians: “Happy Thanksgiving. I’m sorry I upset everybody in Canada.”

***

The scores: Jays 8, Rangers 4; 786 tweets from Canadians – 785 of them from Don Cherry – who refuse to accept Reynolds’ apology; too many hockey promos to count on Sportsnet.

GAME 5

The score: Jays 6, Rangers 3

Reynolds: “It was just an incredible game, the intensity and the controversy. You’re never going to see another game like this.”

Until the next time Rule 6.03 (a) is interpreted and there are four errors and a game-winning home run in the same inning.

An American tragedy: killing children

Every time the gun debate stirs in the United States, I’m taken back to the day I stood over the body of a young boy with his face blown to mush.

It wasn’t in Newtown, or Columbine, or Aurora, or any scene of spectacular carnage. It was just an everyday American tragedy where a firearm in the home becomes a weapon of family destruction.

I was a young reporter on my first newspaper job, at the Livermore Herald and News in northern California.

It was a Wednesday evening, November 13, 1968. I was the only one on the city desk when a call on the police radio announced: “187 at 353 North I Street.”

I jumped in my Mustang and sped to the address, one of those West Coast apartment complexes that looks like a cheap motel.

On the street, there was an unoccupied cop car with its lights flashing.

I spotted a door wide open to a second-story apartment – and walked in.

The place smelled like stale vomit. I did not yet recognize the stench of death.

The entryway opened up to a living room. I was drawn to the sound of a television, a game show.

Two pillows were on the floor in front of the TV console.

A young boy, wearing pajamas, was lying on his stomach, face down on one of the pillows.

The hair on the back of his head was matted with blood.

I heard voices and followed the sound farther into the apartment.

I passed the small kitchen. Breakfast for four – untouched bowls of cereal, a quart of milk – was on the table.

Entering a back bedroom, I saw three cops standing over a man’s body.

“What the hell are you doing here,” shouted the chief of police, John Michelis.

“The door was open,” I said, looking beyond them to a walk-in closet, where two more bodies – a woman and little girl – were slumped in a corner.

“Well, get the hell out,” barked the chief.

I went outside and scribbled in my notebook, every detail I could remember.

I noted the uneaten breakfast as a sign of when the murders had been committed. I drew a diagram of the apartment and where the bodies lay.

I should have been repulsed by what I’d seen. But I was excited.

In a small town, this was a big story.

The dead were: Paul Cranfill, 27, his wife, Lynn, 25, and their two children – five-year-old Bobby and two-year-old Cathy.

The cops told me Cranfill’s brother Carl had come home at about 4 p.m., walked into the dark apartment – none of the lights was on and the drapes were drawn – and taken a two-hour nap on the living room couch, within a few feet of little Bobby’s body.

He called police after he tried to pick up the boy — and his face had stuck to the pillow.

The cops said it looked like a triple-murder-suicide. All had been shot in the head.

When I asked the chief if the breakfast dishes suggested the time of the shooting, he confirmed it probably occurred that morning.

The other reporter on the city desk got some good quotes from the owner of the small apartment complex – “they were a real happy family” and “excellent tenants” – and from Cranfill’s employer at an electronics factory, who called him “a good worker.”

We also learned that police had found a newspaper clipping on gun control. A neighbor who took target practice with Cranfill said he was “a good marksman.”

A search of the Herald morgue unearthed a  clip from the previous summer, when Lynn Cranfill had been featured as “Homemaker of the Week.” She had described her husband as “a kind person.”

The front-page story — VALLEY FAMILY OF FOUR SLAIN — was accompanied by the photo from the homemaker article, of Lynn Cranfill with Cathy and Bobby sitting beside her.

Over the next several days, we tried to figure out what was in the killer’s head before he put a nine-millimeter slug in it.

We learned Cranfill was a gun nut. Besides the murder weapon, a P.38 automatic, he also owned a .357 Magnum, a .22-calibre pistol and a .30-calibre carbine.

He was also nuts. A doctor told us Cranfill had a “paranoid-schizoid personality,” that he had been taking the anti-psychotic drug thorazine, and that his family had been advised to put him in a mental hospital. His wife refused.

He was deep in debt, though he had money for an arsenal.

People spoke freely to reporters in those days. Cops and other officials didn’t cower behind privacy concerns or other  dodges.

Chief Michelis tried to punish me for invading his crime scene. He summoned me to his office for a scolding and showed me his photo collection of gunshot victims.

The goriest were of men who ate their shotguns. The worst were the kids.

It pained me that grownups with guns found it so easy to kill children.

Still does.

***

This story and many others like it are in my unpublished memoir of a life in journalism titled: Burning Bridges.

Putin’s media squeeze sends birthday buss

On Wednesday, I came across a Hallmark message camouflaged as a news report marking Vladimir Putin’s birthday.

It was on the English-language site of Sputnik International, a year-old Russian radio service that broadcasts Putin-centric propaganda around the world in 29 languages, including Estonian, Georgian, Latvian, Polish and Ukrainian.

Must be sweet nostalgia for the old KGB hood to have a Sputnik beaming bullshit to Russia’s neighbors in 2015.

Putin passed the day playing hockey with former NHL stars – they let him score seven goals – and attacking Syria.

Western media reported on the hockey game, as well as a new song titled “My Best Friend is President Putin,” by the Russian rapper Timati.

Did I just type the words Russian rapper?

Last year, for his birthday, a set of drawings displayed in Moscow showed Putin performing Herculean tasks – slaying Islamic terrorists and American imperialists.

This year, a London exhibition by a British artist depicts Putin as every flavor of hero – from Gandhi and Che Guevara, to Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King, plus a weird, winking Salvador Dali.

“Is it us,” asks the British financial news site City A.M., “or is Pele-Putin kicking a football in the shape of the head of a very high profile U.S. politician (Obama)?”

In any case, here is the Sputnik story/press release:

“Today, President Vladimir Putin is celebrating his 63rd birthday. As expected, the leader’s special day has caused a ruckus on social media, with supporters both inside and outside Russia already coming up with some clever ways to congratulate the leader.”

That’s what social media was designed for – as a bludgeon for bullies from Moscow to middle school.

“The president is reported to be celebrating his birthday in a rather reserved manner, spending it as just another day at work. However, he does have plans to play some hockey with famous veteran hockey players and members of the Night Hockey League later today.”

Just another day at work – firing missiles at a foreign land, firing pucks at a petrified goaltender.

“As expected, the president has already received some traditional birthday greetings from foreign leaders. The presidents of Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Belarus have sent their best wishes.”

If they hadn’t, they would not be the presidents of Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Belarus on Thursday.

“Putin was also congratulated by Narendra Modi, who offered a more up-to-date form of greeting, wishing Putin ‘long life, good health & happiness’ in a tweet.”

If Putin was prime minister of India, he’d have more than a billion Twitter followers, instead of Modi’s measly 15 million.

The prime minister’s tweet has already received 1,000 retweets.

All from the staff at the Russian embassy in New Delhi, the Kremlin, the KGB, Tass and Sputnik International.

“Naturally, the president also received greetings from Russian political figures, from parliamentarians to governors and republican leaders.”

What about all those U.S. Republican leaders who so admire Macho Man Putin – tussling with tigers and bears, oh my – compared to Cool Dude Obama?

“Probably the warmest message of greeting came from Chechen Republic leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who congratulated the president on Instagram. Kadyrov’s message of congratulations praised Putin as ‘the most popular, courageous, strong, wise, and strong-willed politician in the world,’ wishing him ‘good health, good luck and success’ in his ‘very difficult and responsible work!’”

Didn’t Pinocchio send a similar Instagram to Geppetto?

“The Russian president also received congratulations from famous artists and public figures, including world-famous Italian musicians Toto Cutugno, Pupo, Al Bano, Ricchi e Poveri and Riccardo Fogli, who noted on a Facebook page of an Italian Putin fan club page that the Russian president is today ‘the main bulwark against the unipolar world and international terrorism!’”

Mussolini and Machiavelli also sent their best.

“The news media joined in on the fun, offering a humorous compilation of the president’s greatest moments of 2015.”

Hilarious snapshots of atrocities in Ukraine and Boris Nemtsov shot dead on a Moscow street.

“Even the normally anti-Putin liberal English-language newspaper The Moscow Times couldn’t help but fete the president, creating an entire article, suspiciously reminiscent of a recent Sputnik piece, complete with quotes and GIFs, on the president’s anniversary.”

It couldn’t help but plagiarize that citadel of Russian journalism – Sputnik.

“Celebrities and politicians aside, Putin has also received a ton of congratulations from social media users around the world, with the hashtag # PutinDay catching fire on Twitter.”

#WWIII

“Users from Russia and around the world congratulated the Russian president on his special day:

“‘Happy Birthday Vladimir Vladimirovich! You more than anyone else, are worthy of the people’s love!’

Love xo, Vladimir Putin.

“‘The dollar fell below 63 rubles, as a sign of respect.’

Love xo, Fox News

“‘The coolest president is celebrating his birthday.’

Love xo, Rasputin

“‘Fools are lucky. The rest of us have to work night and day. V.V. Putin #PutinDay’

Love xo, Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn

“‘Vladimir Vladimirovich! Give me five! Happy Birthday!’”

Love xo, Bashar al-Assad

“This year, the president also got quite a few messages of support for Russia’s decision to begin an air campaign against ISIL, in coordination with Russia’s Syrian allies.”

Love xo, Bashar al-Assad

“Have you congratulated the president yet?”

You talkin’ to me? Love xo, Travis Bickle.

A few notes to (and from) readers

I was thumbing through a volume of bathroom literature the other day when I came across this quote from W.H. Auden:

“Someone says: ‘Whom do you write for?’

“I reply: ‘Do you read me?’

“If they say ‘yes,’ I say, ‘Do you like it?’

“If they say ‘No,’ then I say, ‘I don’t write for you.’”

This quote, from a 1972 Paris Review interview, about a year before Auden’s death, speaks to me now.

***

I’ve noticed this site has picked up readers beyond Canada and the United States – in South Africa, Turkey, Britain and Hong Kong.

Who are you? How did you find me?

The same goes for every reader who has not contacted me on the site, on email, or Twitter.

***

My nephew Brian in Portland, Oregon – a rabbi who dispenses “wisdom biscuits” on his website, Religion-Outside-the-Box – recently posted a complimentary comment on thebeckerfiles. He followed it up with a similarly kind email.

I replied: Thanks, Brian. Means a lot.

In my experience, writers/journalists need to hear praise of their work, since there is not much financial reward – or, in this case, none.

Taking the time to pay a compliment for good work seems to have fallen out of fashion. Not sure why.

He replied: I recently put out a piece called “Silent Compliments” because I was noticing how few compliments I was getting on things. So, I’m working on that Gandhi thing of BEING the change and forcing myself to GIVE compliments. 

So, with a nod to Brian — and Gandhi — thanks to pal Judy for coming up with the headline that still makes me laugh: The Great Wall of Flackery.

***

In early September, I wrote a piece headlined Fear and Thievery on the Campaign Trail ’15, about the Canadian federal parties soaking news outlets tagging along on the leaders’ campaigns.

In response, I received a one-line email from a former colleague, a media honcho in Ottawa: Looks like you’re having fun writing this.

I replied: Fun?

For me, anyway, writing is hard work – especially when there is no $$$ to soothe the psyche.

The easy part is finding things to write about. All I have to do is read, watch and listen.

Would appreciate you forwarding my stuff to anybody who might give a damn.

***

When I was teaching journalism to post-graduate students at Humber College in Toronto, I told every class on the first day: “If you can make a living doing anything else, run for your life.”

On the last day of class each school year, I told my departing students: “I’ve told you enough times that this business is fucked. I’m counting on you to save it.”

I had a conversation not long ago with one of those students, who is now at a major news organization in Canada.

I asked whether his old gang from Humber, all now working in the media, was put off by my criticism of their business.

“I don’t think so,” he said. “Everybody knows how bad it is.”

I reminded him I posted my first piece on Bastille Day and asked: When do you all plan to storm the fortress and overthrow the numbskulls at the top.

***

My pal Cameron in B.C., a former TV news director, sent me an email last Thursday, as details were gushing from that campus shooting in Oregon:

What is with the funereal music track on Newsworld over shooting stills?

CBC now imposing mood on stories. Soon they will attempt to add facts on the basis that ‘it might have happened’ this way.

Who are the fuckin’ bobbleheads responsible for this grotesque twist on reporting with a camera?

I replied: Best was the sad music while Carole MacNeil read sad tweets from unidentified people somewhere on Earth.

Then she threw to some “reporter” in the newsroom who said “on the ground” 30 times in 30 seconds and said “Rosenberg” instead of Roseburg.

I would have started recording this shit – and writing it – but need a break from critiquing CBC atrocities. Too easy.

I did tweet my key points. Have no clue whether anyone read them.

Should I use a hashtag? Isn’t “#” a number sign? Don’t telephone recordings call “#” a pound sign?

***

An update on the story: Blue Jays’ announcers promote the mute button.

As I told Pal Hal in an email:

I believe I’ve trained myself to hear Buck and Pat as background noise – not pay attention to the words.

Of course, now I don’t understand what Linda – or anyone else – is saying either.

***

A friend forwarded the following message to me:

I’m loving Becker’s blog, but something doesn’t sit quite right about ending every post with the blurb about how he’s trying to sell his book.

I’m falling in love with the Becker of the entries – he’s still palpably surly enough that if that was what you liked about Becker, you’d find stuff to enjoy, but also very funny and surprisingly sweet and sensitive.

It’s not that he’s shilling his book – it’s just something about the way it’s shoehorned in at the end of every piece, it feels beneath the dignity of the guy writing the pieces.

I read the posts, I think, “This guy is a badass.” I read the tag, I think, “This guy is sad and frustrated that no one is paying him to write right now.”

I replied:

You’re right: “This guy is sad and frustrated that no one is paying him to write right now.”

***

All of the wonderful Paris Review interviews can be found here.