As a journalist for decades now, Griffith’s words seem to echo louder every year in a country where most of us eat too much (guilty as sin on that one), and “don’t know nothin'” has become the curse of the business of journalism (I resisted the temptation to call it a “profession”) in which I have spent a lifetime.
A reminder of all of this arrived via Facebook Wednesday from Bill Merchant. Merchant is one of the founders and now-retired race director of the Iditarod Trail Invitational (ITI), a 350-mile, human-powered race along the Iditarod from Knik to McGrath, and for some a 1,000-mile race all the way to Nome on the Bering Sea.
His request inadvertently underlined two of the biggest problems facing journalism today:
- In this the Information Age, people can share information in ways never before possible.
- Almost everyone knows someone – directly or indirectly, or on Facebook, Twitter or through other social media – who knows more about any given subject from A to Z than most reporters writing stories on the subject.
This is not so much the fault of individual journalists as of the times. Economics shrunk the business. Beat coverage, which helped journalists grow knowledge about the subjects they were covering, went away.
Reporters became generalists who, in the best case, knew a little about everything and a lot about nothing. Further downsizing replaced old veteran reporters who carried the wealth of knowledge of a little about everything with younger reporters who knew little about less.
And sometimes now, it seems like a bunch don’t know nothin’.
Merchant knows the Iditarod Trial intimately, and he spent a goodly part of his life in the cold, dark north before fleeing to warmer, sunnier climes. The story that irritated him involved ITI veteran Peter Ripmaster from the East Coast. The story was written by Anna Katherine Clay, who teaches “Sports Journalism” at the University of Virginia.
I clicked on the Longreads link to the story only to discover that I am long dead, or should be.
“When hikers think they’re walking on sturdy ice, they’ll take a step, only to feel their foot fall one or two feet underwater. If the air temperature is 15 degrees below zero, wet equals death,” Clay’s story said.
Luckily – as someone who has on more than one occasion soaked his pants and filled his boots with water at temperatures significantly below minus-15 – the statement is hyperbole not fact.
Falling in the water in extreme cold is dangerous, and it gets ever more dangerous as temperatures slide past 20-degrees-below zero. But it’s not deadly if the proper actions are taken afterward.
Ripmaster fell in the Tatitna River outside of Rohn in the Alaska Range in 2016 with the temperatures in the double digits above zero. It was a potentially deadly slip, but not because of the weather.
The rapid where he fell in is well-known to anyone who has traveled the Iditarod. The danger is of being washed downstream and under the ice at the lower end of the rapid. That would indeed be a death sentence.
Ripmaster was not washed under the ice. He was close to scared to death but, with effort, he was able to pull himself out of the rapid. He then jogged about four miles to Rohn to generate the body heat to stay warm – the appropriate thing to do given the proximity of the checkpoint – and warmed up around the woodstove there.
At the time, the reaction of other ITI racers to the news Ripmaster had broken an ice bridge and fallen into open water was to tell their own stories, some of them also near-death stories, about falling through the ice or stumbling into open water. You don’t have to spend many years traveling the Iditarod Trail to encounter issues with open water.
“When (Peter Ripmaster) reached the next checkpoint, another volunteer walked up to him. ‘The New York Times and the AP are on the phone for you,’ she said. ‘Bill told them how you almost died, and they want to hear about it,'” Clay’s story said.
Merchant says he never talked to the NYT or the AP, so it was impossible to have told them anything.
“I never talked with anyone…Don’t know where they got that shit,” he messaged.
The next checkpoint from Rohn in 2016 was in Nikolai in the home of the the late Nick Petruska. The Petruska’s had long hosted the race. The “volunteers” were the Petruska family.
I am willing to bet my Ford F-250 pickup that neither the NYT nor the AP have the phone number for the Petruskas. (After this story was first published, the Petruskas confirmed that, no, they’d never been called by the NYT.)
A Google search found no indication the NYT ever ran a story about Ripmaster, although the Times of News did have a March 9, 2016 report that said, and this is an exact quote, “Peter Ripmaster, 39, of Fairview, transient a brush with genocide while using a 1,000-mile Iditarod Trail Invitational recently in Alaska.”
Google reveals no indication the Associated Press did a story, either although the Citizen Times in Asheville, N .C. – Ripmaster’s hometown newspaper – did. It got most of its information from this website, which was mentioned far down in the story but not linked.
Merchant said he had other issues with the Ripmaster story at Longreads.
“I put a simple comment on it,” he messaged: ‘I don’t think I have ever been so misquoted.’
“I am telling you that story gave me a big f—— headache. It’s just one stupid statement after another.”
Merchant’s first statement could be true or not. In Clay’s defense, people regularly say things, forget they said them, read them in print and conclude “I couldn’t have said that.”
The second statement is, however, a problem.
A big problem
The story’s stupid statements are obvious to anyone who has spent time on the trail. Some things are clearly wrong. Others are horribly confusing. I struggled for some time over Clay’s explanation of Tatina overflow:
“…Hunters described patches of overflow, where the ice was submerged under a thin layer of water. With overflow, the ice is so heavy that it pushes the water outside and on top of the ice, making it nearly invisible.”
This is simply not how river, creek, muskeg or other overflow involving moving water works. Ice doesn’t somehow get heavier than water.
What happens is that ice freezes deep into the ground beneath a water course. If water is unable to find a path under the ice or through the gravel beneath the ice, hydrostatic pressure builds up until water is forced through cracks in the ice, or up and over the ice, or both.
The water is almost always visible, and usually the ice below it. Invisible overflow is sometimes encountered beneath snow-covered lakes and rivers in Alaska, but the Tatina River is almost never covered by snow. It blows clear.
It’s hard to read the story and avoid wondering if there is some other Iditarod Trail about which Clay is writing.
Almost every time the story, which is largely devoted to Ripmaster’s emotional struggles, touches on Alaska, it gets something wrong.
“In the early afternoon of his third day, 184 miles into the race, Pete crossed the treacherous, icy ascent and descent of Rainy Pass, which, together with the subsequent Tatina River crossing, was one of the most dangerous sections of the ITI,” Falls writes.
Rainy Pass is somewhere around 170 miles from the race start although the actual distance tends to vary year-to-year because of the always shifting nature of the trail – a track laid down by the first snowmachines north in the winter. (Note to readers: Anyone who uses to-the-mile accurate mileages for Iditarod distances instead of rounding the numbers has no idea of the nature of that trail.)
The Pass can be treacherous, but not because of ice. The problem is wind and sometimes deep snow in the gully on the west side. The trail doesn’t really cross the Tatina River; it tracks down the river from the Dalzell to Rohn.
Depending on the year, it might cross several open channels in the river. And it always passes the one rapid, which is one of the most dangerous-looking spots on the trail but until Ripmaster had not been the scene of any serious accidents.
The sad thing here is that I was interested in Ripmaster’s story. I’ve known people who suffered from depression, which the story claims he does, and I’ve sometimes wondered if I might be prone to the illness.
But the many obvious errors in the story made it hard to avoid wondering what, if anything, written was accurate. It wasn’t that it was fake news. Clay didn’t appear to be trying to mislead anyone, and it looked like she’d put a lot of time and effort into the story.
It just turned out to be botched news. It reminded me of a story someone had forwarded earlier in the day regarding Fraser River sockeye returns. I read that story and then spent an hour trying to reconcile the numbers in the story with the in a graphic at the bottom of the story. I never did solve that riddle.