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May 31st, 2006 Ian Demsky | News Stories
 

The Riddle At 1320 SW Broadway

     
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It's been three weeks since The Oregonian ran a story about math whiz Mark Provo, who went on a subsequent rampage against the paper starting with a 17-page rebuttal to the May 7 article written by reporter Tom Hallman Jr.

Two weeks later, the paper ran a correction May 21 of five errors in the story profiling Provo's eccentricities and his efforts to prove Pierre Fermat's last mathematical theorem, which has challenged the world's top math minds for more than three centuries. (Provo says that work is a footnote to what he calls his larger discoveries.)

Then on May 23, Hallman's editor Jack Hart posted a blog item on www.oregonlive.com, acknowledging the errors but coming to the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter's defense.

This past Sunday, May 28, for the first time in print discussing some of the conflict behind the story, the O's executive editor, Peter Bhatia, also wrote a note on page A-2, defending Hallman and calling him a "meticulous and thorough reporter."

The key unanswered question, according to Roy Peter Clark, senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, a national training ground in Florida for media professionals, is not the factual errors but why the paper profiled Provo to begin with.

"If I were to create a to-do list for myself in my writing career, one of the things I would put on it would be to make sure I never write anything about Mark Provo," Clark says.

Clark praised Hallman and Hart as having a "tremendous track record of excellence, accuracy and reliability." But he says Provo's unusual level of dissatisfaction (such as his refutation of minutiae like whether he put aloe gel or lotion on his gums) signals "something extra is going on here."

(Provo also says in a later nine-page rebuttal of Hart's blog entry that the Oregonian story has prompted a plot to kill him.)

"I suspect that flags, yellow if not red, were waving during the reporting and editing process," adds George Kennedy, professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism. "The question that Tom Hallman or Jack Hart would have to answer is to what extent they worried about that."

 
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