Beat the Press

Jerry Carroll's Reign of Error
You've probably noticed the Chron's Lively Arts column, an item-filled affair on Page 2 of the paper's Datebook section. Planned as a vibrant repository for all the interesting arts news that passes through a metropolitan newsroom on a given day, it was to be compiled and sassied up by longtime Datebook functionary Jerry Carroll.

But things went wrong quickly. In the first weeks after the column's April 1997 debut, other Chron writers would pass on a tidbit or two. But their interest waned, and as the Datebook editors' attention wandered, the contributions stopped, leaving the column the sole province of Carroll.

This has turned out to be unfortunate. Carroll is something less than a dynamic writer. No bit of hoary columnizing is beneath him: "S.F. lesbian comic Lea DeLaria is knocking them dead in the Big Apple," ran the lead of one item. His tics are snoozers. Anyone British is called a lad. People in rock bands are known as boys. First names are de rigueur -- Robin, Demi, Bill (Faulkner!). Kitsch rules, as when an upcoming Barry Manilow show is relentlessly plugged. Here he is on the subject of Dominick Dunne: "He hung out with the upper crust even before the O.J. Simpson trial put him on the map" -- a litany of cliches in the service of an inaccuracy. (Dunne has been a best-selling author and prominent journalist for a decade.) And surely Herb Caen raged from his grave at this bit of shtick: "Wes Haley just flew in from Thailand -- yes, his arms are tired, very tired ...."

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Carroll is a noodge when catching others at errors: Any press release or invitation with a typo on it is quick fodder for critical mention. Beat the Press recently took a tour through the first months of Carroll's column. It was illuminating, or rather not.

In the second Lively Arts column he wrote, Carroll had to backpedal on two items in the first. Having taken a shot at Bill Graham Presents for trademarking the phrase "Summer of Love," Carroll had to explain that BGP filed the trademark to prevent exploitation by "schlock promoters with fictitious bands," and that BGP was letting Chet Helms use it for last year's concert of the same name. Carroll also said that the Jefferson Airplane tried to trademark the phrase "the San Francisco Sound"; Paul Kantner called to say that effort was made by the band's manager, whom they fired.

A week later the errors began in earnest. Carroll put Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters at an in-store appearance on a Monday; it was Sunday. A few days later, he closed his column with an inane item about Daffy Duck turning 60. "Thufferin' Thuccatash," Carroll wrote. A reader noted that it was Sylvester the Cat who said that, not Daffy Duck. A few days later, Carroll apologized for saying an Alex Bennett-Live 105 split was due to a salary dispute. Money wasn't the issue -- Bennett claimed he was being censored. Cheesily, Carroll described Bennett as "kvetching" at him. Most newspapers don't allow their writers to insult those who've caught them in mistakes.

On May 1, Carroll wrote, with uncertain syntax, "[Hal] David co-wrote most of the Carpenter's hits, as well as chart-toppers he wrote with Burt Bacharach for Dionne Warwick and Dusty Springfield." Huh? Besides their hit "Close to You," the Carpenters had little to do with the celebrated Bacharach-David songwriting team.

In July, bemoaning the financial troubles of the Cartoon Art Museum, Carroll took a shot at Charles Schulz. Turns out that Schulz had been a steady and generous donor to the museum. Oops! The same column mentioned that Josh Kornbluth dons a wig for his one-man show Ben Franklin Unplugged. Nope! Later that month Carroll wrote a precis of the career of blues saxophonist Jimmy Scott. Turned out Scott was a singer! A few days later, in a heat, Carroll opined that Union Square was a "stake in the heart" of downtown. A stake in the heart is something that kills a vampire; Carroll meant to say it was a black mark, or a blot, or something.

Two days after Princess Diana died, Carroll had KGO's Ronn Owen "alertly" flying over to England to interview "insiders" who knew her. What was alert about it? Did no other journalist have the same idea? Then Carroll plugged a race in Golden Gate Park with runners "dressed up in bright orange hoppity-hops." Hoppity-hops are balls you bounce on, not something you wear. Soon after, he mentioned An Alan Smithee Movie; it's called An Alan Smithee Film.

In early October, Carroll vouchsafed a canny urban hint to readers in search of cabs. Limos aren't supposed to stop, he wrote, but "just between us, they will." He didn't tell readers that some of those who've jumped into unmarked, unmonitored limos have been ripped off or raped.

In December Carroll printed a blind item that said city Library Commission Chair Steve Coulter didn't have a library card. Carroll's retraction was graceless. "A library staffer claimed here earlier" was how he put it. A more honorable writer would have explained clearly that he'd published a slur from an unnamed source without bothering to check whether it was true or not. And that it had been wrong. And that he was sorry about it.

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