In the newspaper business, it’s important to get the facts right. Most reporters do almost all of the time, but reporters can be compared to offensive linemen in football: You only really notice them when they mess up.
Most mess-ups can be attributed to being overworked and facing deadline pressure. Some can be attributed to carelessness.
And in some cases, well…
From the Aug. 21, 1941 Jackson County Journal:
Marion Arnold Died Friday,
In Virginia Hospital
“Marion Arnold, senior at Western Carolina Teachers College and business manager of the Western Carolinian, died at a hospital in Portsmouth, Virginia, last Saturday, according to information received at the college.
The young man had been prepared for a serious operation on his brain, after having been ill for some 90 hours, but passed away before the operation could be begun. He had suffered with a clot on his brain for several months, and physicians had warned him that he might expect serious consequences at any time.
However, he had continued with his studies and other activities at Cullowhee during the past year and at summer school, which closed a short time ago. Marion Arnold, a student from Florida, worked his way through college, was a good student, made many friends, and engaged in numerous activities at the school. He was business manager of the Western Carolina Players, and as such, was in a large degree responsible for the successful production of the plays given by that organization during the past year.
His popularity and his successful management of the players brought about his election by his fellow students to the position of manager of their publication, The Western Carolinian, for the current year.”
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For folks undoubtedly tired of depressing news – at the time Hitler was busy rolling up Europe and was presenting a very real risk of taking down Britain and Russia – the death of a popular young local student was another unwelcome item. Readers absorbed the news and were probably ready to move on as the edition of Aug. 28 came out with some surprising news:
Marion Arnold is not dead
“Like that of Mark Twain, the report of the death of Marion Arnold, popular Western Carolina student, whose death was recorded in The Journal last week, is greatly exaggerated.
As a matter of fact, Mr. Arnold, like Mr. Twain, wasn’t dead at all. He was in a hospital in Virginia for treatment and an operation, and was unconscious for four days. He was believed to be dead, and Miss Mabel Tyree, the sponsor and coach for Western Carolina Players, of which Mr. Arnold is manager, received a message from the hospital that Mr. Arnold had died. She wired the authorities at the college, and from the college, The Journal received the message and published the story. Authorities at the college have since received a letter from Mr. Arnold stating that he will return to Cullowhee to complete his course. He did undergo most serious brain operation, and was believed to be dead.”
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In other words, the Journal was handed the facts, and the facts were just flat wrong.
To the relief of everyone.
The saga of Marion Arnold was mentioned in a couple of other editions of the Journal.
On Dec. 11, 1941, it was reported he was back in school.
In the Jan. 1, 1942 edition, news came that he was entertained as a holiday guest of Dr. and Mrs. H.T. Hunter of Western Carolina Teachers College. One item reported he and a group of students were treated to waffles by the Hunters.
Then the trail turned cold, and we were unable to trace the eventual fate of Mr. Arnold. Suffice it to say he recovered from his ordeal in Virginia, returned to school, and was undoubtedly very happy to be the subject of a string of errors that made the front page.