The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter–it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.
Mark Twain- Letter to George Bainton, 10/15/1888
In 1998 I saw first hand how much of an uproar that the lack of one letter could stir up while working at the Log Cabin Democrat. The Log Cabin Democrat is a venerable old newspaper published in Conway, Arkansas. It has for a good many years been a trusted source of information for the good people of Conway and Faulkner County.
But, even the best of news publications occasionally have a gaffe or misspelled word here or there. If they are lucky, the mistake will be buried deep in the copy.
But this was not that sort of mistake. No, this was the worst sort of misspelling. The kind on the front page of the paper. Oh, did I mention that the mistake happened in a headline? Yeah. It did.
You might remember in 1998 the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal was breaking big. Of course, this was front page stuff, so a story goes right on the front page of the paper. Now, I do not remember the headline verbatim, but I do remember it should have, and was intended to, read something like this:
Clinton Rocked By Public Scandal
Well, we had our own little public scandal when our entire newsroom, the reporters, editors and publishers, failed to notice the rather glaring blunder in the headline. So, it went to press. And it got sent out the door.
That was about the time that someone in the Log Cabin Democrat newsroom made a sound like they had been punched in the gut.
See, the headline was missing one little letter. Just one.
The missing symbol was the letter “L” from the word “Public”. So our newspaper announce to the fine citizens of our fair community… many of whom are fine, upstanding, moral folks…that indeed:
Clinton Rocked By Pubic Scandal
Of course, we had many calls and complaints. Editors and publishers were apologetic and embarrassed. I think it might have made Leno. I tried not to laugh too hard around the editors and proof readers. But I did laugh.
After a short while, the fervor died down over the headline debacle.
But, I came away with two thoughts from the experience:
- One little letter can make a big difference
- This may be one of the very few times in modern journalism that even though the headline actually published said something completely different than the headline intended to be published, it still summed up the story pretty well.