The Best Bait For Catching A Newspaper Reporter
It's not exactly "Dewey Beats Truman" but I'm sure it's not something that the editors at the Chicago Tribune are too proud of.
Over Labor Day weekend, a couple of days before the Chicago teachers strike, the Tribune ran a lengthy, heart-wrenching story about the plight of 66-year-old substitute teacher Henry Wolfson.
The article, by Tribune reporter Barbara Brotman, detailed how Wolfson had found himself living in a homeless shelter for the past four months. It began: "On this Labor Day, consider a story about labor that hasn't worked out so well."
The story went on to talk about how poorly substitute teaching paid and how Wolfson had essentially gone broke trying to pay for medical insurance. As a result, the story contended, Wolfson ( "with no family to turn to") had been evicted from his apartment and was now living in a homeless shelter with nothing but an alarm clock and a few clothes.
The article concludes with the reporter's own rallying cry: "On Labor Day, [Wolfson's] tale shows that there are people around us who are working hard and just barely staying afloat; that work is not always rewarded in ways we would all find fair; that effort does not always translate into decent money." In other words, workers of the world unite against injustice.
Did I mention that this piece was published a couple of days before Chicago teachers went out on strike?
Anyway, after this article ran, many of Mr. Wolfson's former students rushed to raise money to help him out. By all accounts, the students were well on their way to raising $20,000. That is, until they learned the rest of the story.
As it turns out, the Tribune story omitted a couple of key facts. For instance, in 2007 Wolfson had received $247,000 from a trust established by his late parents. In addition, in 2011 he received $12,000 from a settlement of a lawsuit against his sister and her husband (which may explain why he was estranged from his family).
So, where did the money go?
It turns out that Wolfson is apparently what many would describe as a degenerate gambler who now acknowledges that he lost about $180,000 betting on horses in a little more than a year! Needless to say, efforts to raise money on his behalf are now on hold.
Admittedly, Wolfson withheld details about his finances from the reporter. As the Tribune acknowledges however, details about the large inheritance were readily available in public court files but not reviewed by the reporter.
So why did this journalistic malpractice occur?
Quite simply, Wolfson laid out bait that was irresistible to the reporter and her editors. Labor Day, an impoverished career teacher now living in a homeless shelter, an impending teachers strike. Stop the presses and break out the Pulitzer application.
This could easily have been a story about the dangers of compulsive gambling. It wasn't though - because Wolfson's claims made great copy and the reporter couldn't be bothered to investigate. Sort of like when the old Milwaukee Sentinel got duped by an employee's phony claim of finding a syringe in a Pepsi can.
The lesson? When a story seems too compelling to be true, it might be because the story isn't true.
Just ask Tribune reporter Barbara Brotman - who swallowed the bait hook, line and sinker.