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CHAIN OF ERRORS LED TO MISIDENTIFICATION OF SOLDIER

How did it happen? How did news leader WIVB-TV make the stunning mistake Monday night of airing an incorrect report on the death of a U.S. soldier in Iraq?

It was the result of some highly unusual circumstances that easily could have happened to any news organization on a deadline, especially when staff members mistakenly thought they had a disturbing new angle on the tragic story.

Channel 4's 10 p.m. (on WNLO) and 11 p.m. newscasts included a report on the death of Army Spc. Brian K. Baker. They reported he was from West Seneca and showed a West Seneca East High School yearbook picture of a man by the same name and interviewed a classmate. As Channel 4's report noted, that's the same high school attended by another soldier killed in Iraq, Marine Lance Cpl. Eric Orlowski.

Shortly after the photograph was shown at 11 p.m, Channel 4 said a spokesperson for the family of Brian K. Baker of Springville called and said they had the wrong man. It was their son who was killed by a bomb while he was on security patrol in Baghdad. WIVB made the correction before the end of its 11 p.m. newscast, but not before friends of the West Seneca man saw the erroneous report and eventually wondered how a news station could make such a mistake.

Channel 4's executive producer, Joe Schlaerth, said that the Department of Defense reported that night that Spc. Baker was from West Seneca, the hometown of the man in the yearbook. In fact, based on Defense Department information, one edition of The Buffalo News also reported that the fallen soldier was from West Seneca, but it was corrected in later editions.

The error may have resulted because the Springville soldier enlisted through the West Seneca recruiting office, a spokesperson for the Springville family said.

Granted, the odds against two men in their 20s having the same name, same middle initial, and same hometown were extremely high. But that's not a defense for Channel 4. Baker is not an uncommon name and the two Bakers graduated from high school two years apart. To avoid making such an embarrassing error, Channel 4 probably should have gotten confirmation from Spc. Baker's family, as other news outlets that night were able to do. Perhaps the West Seneca East classmate being interviewed could have helped provide the names of Baker's parents to determine if the Baker from West Seneca East was even in the military. (He is not).

Schlaerth wouldn't use the word "embarrassing" but conceded the station felt badly about the error. Asked what he would do differently, Schlaerth said, "We'd grill the Department of Defense and get more information confirming who the person is.

"Our whole reason for doing the story is to show a person who gave his life for his country," said Schlaerth. "That's all any news agency wants to do."

Schlaerth said the incorrectly identified man handled the situation with grace and that his concern was for the family of the dead soldier. The spokesperson for the Springville family said its concern was for the parents of the West Seneca man.

If that is the case, then the major harm to come from the mistake is to Channel 4's news reputation. Chris Musial, the former Channel 4 news director who now is the station's general manager, said no one would be disciplined.

"I don't know if we'll ever be in a situation like this again," said Musial.

Asked what he would have done differently, Musial replied: "I don't know if I would have done anything differently. It was an honest mistake."

WGRZ-TV weathercaster Kevin O'Connell was in the middle of a minor storm last week after President Bush's re-election victory. During some happy talk with anchor Scott Levin, O'Connell said the wrong guy won. O'Connell, of course, is the son of a prominent Democrat. His late father, George, served as Buffalo's city controller.

"If anyone was offended, I would be very, very sad," said
O'Connell. "It is probably something I shouldn't have said."

Jim Toellner, the station's general manager, agrees. He said he only got one protesting e-mail and a call "from a conservative-leaning relative."

"One of our core values and objectives is to have fair and balanced reporting," said Toellner. "It is not something we like to do."

I'd be more concerned if one of Channel 2's anchors or reporters made a political statement. After all, O'Connell's political stand can't influence the weather.

Note to fans of "American Dreams," who are concerned that Channel 2's airing of the Bills-New England game Sunday from ESPN will mean they won't be able to see the episode in which Beth gives birth to JJ's baby while he serves in Vietnam: WGRZ will carry NBC's Sunday lineup after the game and its newscast. So set your VCRs or DVRs from midnight to 6 a.m. to make sure you get all of the preempted shows.

CBS' decision to send the baseball-family drama, "Clubhouse," to the showers isn't going to upset too many viewers here. The first Saturday edition didn't even get a 3 rating here.

HBO has announced that "Six Feet Under" will end its five-year run after a final season of 12 episodes that is in production.

e-mail: apergament@buffnews.com

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