Posted: 5/4/2011 | By: Mark Fitzgerald
Milwaukee Sentinel embarrassed after being fooled by telemarketer's claim that she found a syringe in a can of Pepsi
THE OLD CITY News Bureau of Chicago saying is, "If your mother says she loves you ? check it out."
But what if an employee taking a break in your newspaper's cafeteria lounge suddenly screams that she has found a syringe in her can of Pepsi ? and a respected reporter has apparently witnessed the incident?
What the Milwaukee Sentinel did was run with the story quickly ? and big.
It ended up apologizing big, too, when the employee confessed the whole thing was a hoax.
The U.S. Attorney's Office in Milwaukee decided to indict Katherine "Kitty" Wuerl ? a 30-year-old telemarketer for the company that publishes the Sentinel and Milwaukee Journal ? on June 22 on one count of product tampering. She faces a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
"We made a mistake, a big mistake," Sentinel managing editor Gerry Hinkley wrote in a front-page story June 21.
Sentinel columnist William Janz, also writing on the front page, was even more critical.
"We at the Milwaukee Sentinel are lucky that Wisconsin does not have a death penalty for bad journalism," he wrote.
"There can be no justification for the shoddy, sensational way editors handled the story . . . . [The employee's] story was a fraud, but without checking thoroughly, editors played the report as if it were true, and also played it as if we had just received a handwritten note from Elvis," Janz wrote in his "Janz at Large" column.
Coming in the middle of the Pepsi tampering scare, the incident at first seemed a gift from journalism's Scoop Heaven.
According to accounts in the Sentinel, on Wednesday evening June 16 Wuerl was one of seven employees in the TV lounge near the company cafeteria when she opened a can of Pepsi and suddenly screamed, "What the hell is this?"
Sentinel reporter James E. Causey, who did not know Wuerl, jumped up, retrieved the soda can, which had fallen to the floor, and saw a syringe as he poured the remaining contents into a glass. The syringe was marked "Use U-100 Insulin Only." The device's needle was not sheathed.
Causey later said he had heard, but did not see, Wuerl open the can.
Nonetheless, the Sentinel's front-page account in the next day's paper said Causey "apparently is the first reporter in the country to witness a syringe discovery in the string of Pepsi scares."
Aside from what Causey and six other Journal/Sentinel employees in the lounge apparently witnessed, there was another factor that made Wuerl's account compelling.
The can's label indicated it had been canned by Wis-Pak Inc., a Watertown, Wis., bottler. Wis-Pak at the time was under investigation because an Iowa man claimed he had found a syringe in a can bottled there.
In addition to giving the incident lead story treatment, Wuerl told her story in a front page first-person account.
Ironically, Wuerl's lead was, "I still can't believe it."
Neither, eventually, did the Food and Drug Administration, the FBI and the U.S. attorney for Milwaukee.
For one thing, it soon surfaced that Wuerl had filed at least three disputed personal injury lawsuits ? two of them against the Journal/Sentinel Co. itself.
Late Friday night June 18 ? following five hours of questioning by the FBI that included a polygraph examination ? Wuerl admitted through her lawyer that she had fabricated the incident.
"The last three days Kitty Wuerl has been involved in a quiet plea for attention amongst her peers, hoping to gain a little friendship, which has unexpectedly snowballed into a national story far exceeding the realm of her intentions," attorney Mitchell J. Barrock said in a prepared statement.
Also that Friday night, Wuerl got herself committed to the Milwaukee County Mental Health Complex by threatening to commit suicide, according to a Journal story by Kevin Harrington.
On Monday June 21, a Journal/Sentinel spokesman said Wuerl no longer worked for the company. The spokesman declined to detail the circumstances of her departure.
Compounding the Wuerl incident was another embarrassing occurrence at the Sentinel during its star-crossed weekend.
The newspaper on Saturday published a free-lance critic's review of singer Dolly Parton's performance at the Country Jam USA outdoor concert in Lake Geneva.
The problem was, Parton's performance was rained out.
Sentinel managing editor Gerry Hinkley said the critic's case was easy ? but Wuerl's much more difficult.
"The people involved in the coverage that night sincerely believed that something happened that was a danger to the public," he wrote. "We played it big because, if it were true, it was a very serious incident. We now know we were wrong," Hinkley added.
Hinkley wrote that Sentinel journalists considered the possibility the incident was a hoax, "but at the time it did not seem possible."
"Whether the source seemed credible seemed irrelevant because the incident was witnessed by a credible person, the reporter we knew and trusted," Hinkley wrote.
But Hinkley said the paper erred by not "formally" interviewing reporter James E. Causey and asking "hard questions."
Similarly, he said, "The woman should have been extensively questioned by someone who was not a witness."
"To be reminded that one is fallible in 80-point type that will forever remain part of history is a stomach-wrenching experience," managing editor Hinkley wrote.