Mental Floss

9 Times They Probably Should Have Stopped The Presses

David Holzel
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Parade magazine recently gave readers a taste of the now-lost time when news traveled slowly and events often overtook information. Staring from the cover of the tabloid's Jan. 6 issue, a defiant Benazir Bhutto declared, "I am what the terrorists most fear."

Her appearance was a surprise to everyone but "the terrorists," who had murdered the Pakistani politician 10 days earlier and answered unequivocally the question Parade's headline asked its readers: "Is Benazir Bhutto America's Best Hope Against al-Qaeda?"

Makes you long for the much-maligned 24-hour news cycle.

According to Publisher Randy Siegel, Parade had put the Bhutto issue to bed a full six days before her Dec. 27 assassination. The 400-plus newspapers that deliver Parade to 32 million readers all elected to include the magazine with its painfully outdated cover story.

"Every week it costs several million dollars to print and distribute Parade," Siegel told NPR. But he went on to explain that money was not the reason he chose to let the issue stand. "We believe that what Benazir Bhutto had to say should be heard and this story deserved to be told."

Perhaps Parade columnist/super genius Marilyn vos Savant will calculate for us the odds of a publication going to press with a seriously out-of-date story, of betting wrong against a deadline, or just plain blowing it when it comes to life and death. As of our deadline, here are seven more examples of ill-timed news.

2006 "“ Good News, Bad News

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Three hours later, the celebrating relatives were informed that 11 of the 12 lost miners actually were dead. A witness said one relative lunged for an official and had to be wrestled to the ground.

The mine owner, International Coal Group (ICG), said it knew within 20 minutes that initial reports were incorrect, but waited until it had all the facts before issuing a clarification. ICG President Ben Hatfield blamed the confusion on "stray cell phone conversations." People overhearing bits of phone calls spread the incorrect information, he explained.

1982 "“ Requiem for Sgt. Fish

Actor Abe Vigoda was just 54 when he landed the role of elderly cop Sgt. Fish on the "˜70s hit TV show Barney Miller. Vigoda had played a recurring role on the creepy soap opera Dark Shadows in the 1960s, and appeared in the first two Godfather films. Perhaps because he was still together with his wife, or wasn't one of the 100 Sexiest Men Alive, in 1982 People magazine referred to him as "the late Abe Vigoda." It became a running joke -- Vigoda even posed for a photograph sitting in a coffin, holding a copy of the magazine. A quick check of the "Abe Vigoda Status" website this week reassures us that the actor is alive.

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2007 "“ Oh Wilbur!

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1998 "“ Hope Springs Eternal

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1945 -- Vladimir Ivanovich, We Hardly Knew You

In the Soviet Union, Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky was a scientist's scientist. He "was rated an expert in geology, chemistry, biology, physics and astronomy," according to Time magazine. "In the vast perspective of the billions of years of geologic time, man has seemed to orthodox geologists a puny and perhaps temporary phenomenon," the magazine said. But after witnessing World War I, Vernadsky concluded that "modern man's brain, rivaling in power the geological forces of wind and water, is radically transforming nature."

Americans were introduced to Vernadsky's ideas in an article in American Scientist. The magazine went to press just before the scientist died.

1974 "“ Goodnight Chet

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In its March 24, 1974, Sunday magazine, the Chicago Tribune published a warts-and-all profile of the newsman, who had retired from television in 1970. The article described Huntley's battles with conservationists over his plans for a resort in his native Montana. "In the past three years, Huntley has gone from being a national hero to something of a local villain," the article declared.

"Chet Huntley the anchorman has become Chet Huntley the businessman; worse, a celebrity businessman," the article sniffed. "And no one in this country is going to lose any sleep over knocking a big-shot mercenary."

Five days before "Chet Huntley in Hot Water" appeared, Huntley, who was known to be ill, had died of lung cancer.

Like Parade's Benazir Bhutto story, the Huntley piece had gone to press almost three weeks earlier. And in an unsurprising foreshadowing, Editor John Fink defended the decision to stick by the article. The $100,000 in production fees and advertising had nothing to do with the decision, he told Time. "It was basically a story on Huntley and his life, and it seemed to me that if he should die before publication, it could be something of a final statement."

1948 "“ Dewey Defeats Truman

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We couldn't leave out the Mother of All Newspaper Goofs. President Harry S Truman was in a tight four-man race for reelection. His Democratic party was split and Gallup polls predicted a landslide for Republican Thomas E. Dewey's. On election night, Truman went to bed in Excelsior Springs, Missouri, believing he had lost the election. Overnight, though, Truman closed the gap, and at 10:14 a.m. Dewey conceded the election.

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In 2004, the New York Post did their best Daily Tribune impression by announcing the "exclusive" news that John Kerry had selected Dick Gephardt as his running mate. We'll save that story for our inevitable follow-up: "9 Times Newspaper Exclusives Were Blatantly Wrong."

David Holzel is a writer outside Washington, D.C., and co-creator of The Franklin Pierce Pages. He was assisted on this piece by a brilliant librarian who wishes to remain anonymous.

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