Carroll: Bit on the butt by Snoopy Dog Dog?
Most people make mistakes at work from time to time, but when a member of the media makes one, a lot more people know about it (see: the team at “60 Minutes”).
We’ve had our share of goof-ups at The Aspen Times over the years, from headline gaffes to reporting miscues. No one feels worse than the person who commits the error. And when one happens, we fix the mistake with a correction, try to determine how it happened and aim not to repeat the blunder.
Last week when I first read a letter submitted for publication by one W. E. Weissenberg, I was amused by the observations regarding Colorado’s rapidly expanding, and equally controversial, marijuana-cultivation trade.
Weissenberg referred to the aspiring growers as “drug lords” and complained that the community was teaching its “children how to be like Snoopy Dog Dog.” The potency of marijuana these days, Weissenberg maintained, “is said to be stronger than ever, creating a wasteland of instantly hooked zombies looking to commit their next crime.”
Because the letter did not include the writer’s town of residence, a requirement to be published, I emailed Weissenberg.
Hours later, I received the following reply:
“My time is spent mainly between Old Snowmass and Miami, Fl. I don’t get out as much as I used to, but still feel that the valley is a special place. Your unbiased journalism is appreciated.
“W E Weissenberg”
Our standard practice for confirming letters for publication is to call or email the writer when we aren’t familiar with their name or if their letter singles out an individual or group in a negative light. Weissenberg’s response was satisfactory to me.
Now flash back to the 1990s when the two daily newspapers fell prey to Roger Marolt, whose letters were published under 18 pseudonyms in a satirical strike on life in Aspen. Marolt eventually was exposed by then-Times reporter Brent Gardner-Smith, effectively ending his 31/2-year folly.
The editors of both Aspen newspapers — I was at the helm of the Daily News then — were red-faced and feeling betrayed. Here was Marolt, with all of this extra time on his accountant’s hands, taking the opinion pages hostage with letters and responses that created a phony dialogue and influenced public discourse. How dare he?
Well, he dared because both newspapers, as small as they are and without the time or resources to double-check every letter with background checks and NSA-type operatives, took his writing at face value by putting too much stock in their unwritten honor codes. In a we-won’t-be-fooled-again display of chest-pounding and righteous indignation, both papers vowed to validate every last letter that came their way and banned Marolt’s writings for life. One year later, however, the Times saw Marolt fit for parole and hired him as a columnist.
Meanwhile, more than 14 years after Marolt’s hoax heard around Pitkin County, we published Weissenberg’s letter Friday. I even posted it on Facebook because it was a juicy little nugget rich with marijuana paranoia. And, of course, commenters on Facebook took Weissenberg to task — that out-of-touch Miami fart! — for the letter’s damning portrayal of this now-legal cash crop. A few letters critical of Weissenberg also began to flow in, but I didn’t publish them because I started to question the writer’s legitimacy. On Friday, I ran Weissenberg’s name through the Pitkin County property assessor’s database. No hits, but if he or she did own property, it might be listed under the ownership of an LLC, I figured (and hoped).
Just before noon Friday, I emailed Weissenberg with the following message:
“A number of readers believe this is a bogus letter. While I typically contact letter writers by phone, in the case that I’m not familiar with their name, I did not in this instance. Please call me at 970-429-9141 so we can discuss. Thanks.”
Hours passed, and Saturday went by with no reply. So I paid $15 to an online service to trace Weissenberg’s email address. “No records found,” the service said.
On Sunday, I chunked one last Hail Mary to Weissenberg in the form of the following email: “If you pulled a fast one on this, then I’m to blame. But I’d like to hear from you one way or another, and promise not to out you if this was indeed a bogus letter.
Again, no reply. On Monday, I talked to Marolt, just to make sure he hadn’t relapsed.
“Rest assured, I did not,” he insisted.
The irony of the situation, of course, is if I did this kind of diligence before printing the letter with the same results, it probably wouldn’t have run. But here we are, and I still don’t know if W. E. Weissensberg (rhymes with Heisenberg) exists.
Whoever he or she is: Let me know, and either way, I’ll buy you a drink. Or you can buy one for me, because mistakes like this — if it is indeed one — need a correcting and consolation.
Rick Carroll is editor of The Aspen Times. He takes comments, complaints, questions and news tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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