There had actually been some good news for a change, for a while. The ivory-billed woodpecker, long thought to be extinct, turned out not to be. As a bird-watcher who thrills to any fleeting glimpse of a plain old pileated woodpecker, not to mention the redbellies, hairies and downies that commonly slam their heads into trees in my own Bronx backyard, I imagined how great it would be to see an ivory bill. And then I imagined that it's probably in the best long-term survival interests of any species to keep the word "ivory" out of its name. I therefore mused that the ivory-billed woodpecker should henceforth be known as the cheap-Formica-billed woodpecker. You know, for its own good.
Those happy thoughts disappeared along with New Orleans. Like most of the civilized world, I went from sad to stunned to seething as the city was swamped, just days ago as I write. Then I heard a highly respected journalist make a small mistake on national television. And, in direct contrast to the agencies that deal with disasters, I probably overreacted. Because I went berserk: full-out John-McEnroe-bad-line-call insane. Temporarily, I hope. Here's what happened.
The October 2001 issue of Scientific American featured a depressingly prescient article by contributing editor Mark Fischetti entitled "Drowning New Orleans." The piece reads as if Fischetti wrote it in the days following Hurricane Katrina's assault on the city, describing in detail almost exactly the scenario that engulfed the gulf--and what could have been done to prevent it. Fischetti thus became a frequent guest on television news programs in the early days of September.
One such TV appearance came on Sunday, September 4, 2005 (a date which will live inflaming me), on Meet the Press. NBC News Washington bureau chief and Meet the Press moderator Tim Russert introduced Fischetti and noted that his article had appeared in--buckle up--Scientific America. (The written transcript of the program corrects the error, but it's clear in the audio available through the NBC Web site.)
This mistake is common. I've lost count of the number of people I've met who say, "Oh, I read Scientific America all the time." To which I say to myself, "No, you don't."
So why did I get so mad this time? There were certainly much more pressing issues that day than the correct name of this publication. Russert's mistake might have been a mere tongue slip. But I'm betting that the more likely explanation for the name truncation is that most muckety-mucks, whether in politics or journalism, are unfamiliar with Scientific American because they don't pay all that much attention to science in general. Which is ironic, because Fischetti's piece isn't the only one in these pages that can tell the reader what will be happening years down the road, whereas most news outlets only tell you what happened yesterday.
Actually, Moot the Press and I have had issues for some time. Back in the dark days before the turn of the millennium, Y2K was an alleged impending crisis. The renowned computer scientist, systems analyst and cultural anthropologist Pat Robertson appeared with Russert to explain that the coming computer meltdown was going to cripple us. (Yes, this is the same Pat Robertson who recently pulpitized in favor of assassinating the duly elected president of a sovereign nation, then denied it and then apologized for it.) I wrote a letter to the producer suggesting that a serious discussion of the Y2K issue would require guests with greater expertise in the field than a televangelist has.
So it is definitely a positive development that people like Mark Fischetti, people who actually know stuff, get invited to appear on national news programs, along with spinning politicians. Having some scientists on would also be good. And it would be nice if you got our name right. Because it's inconceivable that a national news host could refer to The Wall Street Journey, Newswake or Tim, Tim.
This article was originally published with the title Naming Names.