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All kidding aside, Wise’s Twitter stunt “sad beyond sadness”

In March 1980, the late Kirk Scharfenberg of the Boston Globe wrote this headline above an editorial on a Jimmy Carter economic initiative: "Mush From the Wimp."

"I meant it as an in-house joke and thought it would be removed before publication," he said.

Uh-oh.

Before anyone noticed, the headline appeared in 161,000 copies of the Globe. It was then replaced by a proper, dignified headline: "All Must Share the Burden."

The all-time champ in Idle Hands are the Devil’s Workshop, journalism division, is Clyde Haberman of The New York Times.

In June 1966, the 21-year-old reporter was assigned to type up hundreds of awards given to City College of New York students. Perhaps to relieve the boredom and at the same time prove how wicked clever he was, Haberman typed, "THE BRETT AWARD to the student who has worked hardest under a great handicap – Jake Barnes."

Uh-oh, uh-oh.

Perhaps such an allusion would be missed by CCNY students scouring the list for their own names. But editors at the Times, scouring every six-point piece of Gray Lady agate, recognized the steal from Hemingway’s "The Sun Also Rises." The novel’s protagonist, Jake Barnes, was in love with the femme fatale Brett Ashley but unable to do much about it; war wounds had rendered him sexually impotent.

The Times fired Haberman.

He did 11 years hard time in the wilderness of journalism before the Times took him back.

Compared to the Habermann exile, sports columnist Mike Wise’s one-month suspension by the Washington Post is a vacation. Even the Post’s ombudsman, Andrew Alexander, wrote, "He’s lucky he wasn’t fired." Different times, different formats, different bosses – all that’s true – but what Wise did is the same journalistic transgression committed by Haberman: fabrication. Knowing that he was writing a lie under the name of his employer, Wise went ahead and did it for not much more of a purpose other than to show, in Haberman fashion, how wicked clever he was.

Wise used his Post Twitter account to write, "Roethlisberger will get five games, I’m told."

Uh-oh, squared.

The columnist had not been "told" anything by anyone. Ben Roethlisberger’s suspension had not been changed from the NFL’s announced six games.

Wise said he wanted to show that Twitter was an undependable source of news. To do that, he would post a lie and see how quickly it moved through TwitterWorld as real news. Oh so wicked clever, no?

No. When re-tweeted, the "news" was attributed to Wise in his role as a respected, veteran columnist with one of America’s leading newspapers. The tweet’s greatest effect, in fact, was to reveal that Mike Wise is a twit. He acknowledged as much in a long mea culpa on his radio show following the suspension. One piece of it: "I could give you 10 reasons why I did this and explain what went wrong in the execution. But none of it matters today. I made a horrendous mistake, using my Twitter account which identifies me as a Washington Post columnist to come up with an unsourced sentence about the length of Ben Roethlisberger’s suspension. I didn’t put ‘kidding’ in that sentence. I didn’t put ‘just joking.’"

Within the hour of the original tweet, Wise posted more tweets suggesting it was all a joke, a spoof, a hoax. At one point, he said his source was "a casino employee at Lake Tahoe" – as if that would show just how ridiculous it was to think the tweet was real. The trouble with that is obvious. In today’s media world, nothing is private if within reach of a cell phone’s microphone and camera. Would any of us really be surprised if a casino employee in Lake Tahoe had video of Ben Roethlisberger kissing Roger Goodell on the lips for reducing his suspension a week?

Wise’s immediate back-tracking on the Roethlisberger tweet showed that he knew he’d screwed up. Too late. It did nothing to restore his credibility or restore trust in his work. For that matter, the Post’s decision to suspend him a month didn’t do much for the paper. Ben Bradlee, in his time as the Post’s executive editor, once said, "Yes, we print lies. We print what people tell us." It’s sad beyond sadness when the people telling the lies are the people publishing them.

Dave Kindred's latest book, "Morning Miracle," is an inside-the-newsroom account of two years in the life of The Washington Post. Now a contributing writer at Golf Digest, Kindred is a Red Smith Award winner and member of the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association Hall of Fame. He can be reached at inkstained1@aol.com. He can be followed at Twitter.com/DaveKindred and facebook.com/people/Dave-Kindred/509353295.

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