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Obama's Valentine's Day, the Sun-Times, Washington Post and Google

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The First Couple spent Valentine's Day 2009 in Chicago, dining at the Table Fifty-Two restaurant at 52 W. Elm St. On Sunday--Valentine's Day 2010--First Lady Michelle Obama and daughters Malia and Sasha were at Camp David and President Obama joined them in the afternoon. That evening, the First Family returned to Washington.

Clear enough? Not to the Washington Post. Here is the cautionary tale:

At 10:14 p.m. on Feb. 14, 2009, I filed a post for my Chicago Sun-Times blog headlined "Obama's Valentine's Day dinner at Table Fifty-Two restaurant in Chicago." That headline apparently had the right words in the right order for the automated Google search engine optimization system. So on Sunday--even Tuesday morning--if you typed in Obama and Valentine's Day, even though it was a year later--my blog post from 2009 was at the very top.

But that detail--the 2009 date--escaped the notice of a young Washington Post news aide who was writing the paper's "Names and Faces" feature for the Monday Style section. The writer rewrote the post--with attribution to the Sun-Times--and ran it under the headline, "Obamas' Valentine's getaway" in Monday's Washington Post.

White House Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton early Monday tweeted, "WP rpt that the Obamas went to Chicago for Valentine's Day is true - but probably worth noting that that was last year."

The Washingtonian Magazine's Harry Jaffe opined in his blog, "We can rely on the Washington Post to keep track of the President and First Lady, at least in matters of their dating and dining. Right?


On Monday afternoon, Washington Post Ombudsman Andy Alexander posted a column on what happened, headlined, "Embarrassing error on Obamas' Valentine's dinner."

Here is a portion of Alexander's unflinching assessment:

The mistake was made by Tim Smith, a young news aide in the Style section, but also slipped past two levels of editing. It began when Smith was trolling the Internet Sunday for items to include in the "News & Faces" feature. Curious about how the president would spend the day, Smith went to Google News and typed "Obama" and "Valentine's" in the search field. Up popped the Chicago Sun-Times story, dated Feb. 14, that began: "President Obama and First Lady Michelle are celebrating Valentines Day Saturday night in Chicago at the Table Fifty-Two restaurant at 52 W. Elm St. The co-owner and executive chef of the restaurant is Art Smith, the one time personal chef for Oprah Winfrey."

"Smith began fact-checking the item, scrutinizing the correct spelling of names and the location of a restaurant Art Smith also owns in the District. He went on the Website for Table Fifty-Two and planned to call after they opened at 4 p.m. Chicago time to check on what the Obamas had eaten the previous evening.

"But in his research, Smith failed to note that the Sun-Times story had been written in 2009. The story ranked so high among stories yielded by his Google search that he just assumed it was timely. "It escaped me to even look at the date of the article," he said Monday. Likewise, he said, "it slipped my mind to double check" with Table Fifty-Two later Sunday afternoon to see what the Obamas had eaten. And he apparently was not suspicious that Valentine's Day was Sunday, not Saturday, as the Sun-Times story said.

"After Smith wrote the item, it went through Scott Vogel, a style section editor, who said Monday that he did not independently check to confirm that the Obamas had dined at Table Fifty-two.

After Vogel, the item went through The Post's copy desk before appearing in print and online.

Even though his editors didn't catch the error, Smith took full blame. He noted that he did not confirm the dinner with the White House. Checking the White House pool reports for details would have revealed that the president on Sunday took a helicopter to Camp David to join his wife and daughters, who had gone there on Friday."

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Lynn Sweet

Lynn Sweet is a columnist and the Washington Bureau Chief for the Chicago Sun-Times.

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Lynn Sweet published on February 16, 2010 8:00 AM.

Durbin visiting Congo, Ethiopia, Sudan was the previous entry in this blog.

Valentine's weekend marks one year since Obama family visited Chicago home is the next entry in this blog.

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