Mark Powell finds mistakes everywhere he looks. National monuments, scholarly texts, museums, The Washington Post, The New York Times: All have drawn the attention of Powell’s rabid, error-spotting eye. Powell will leave you seven-minute voicemails about these errors. When you call him back, he’ll tell you how good he is at finding them–in great detail. When after two and a half hours you finally manage to hang up the phone, you’ll vow never to speak with Mark Powell again. Then he’ll call, and you’ll listen. Because the thing is, Mark Powell is always right.
In an e-mail to Seattle Post-Intelligencer reader representative Glenn Drosendahl, Powell, who resides in Arlington, Va. (he lived in Seattle in 1994 and 1995), wrote: “Give me ‘history of cooking’ and I won’t catch much beyond obvious contradictions; but general history, geography, science, math, politics, the major spheres containing much of what goes in a serious newspaper—my aggregate instant-recall and applicable knowledge in these fields is likely unsurpassed; and ditto the analytical acumen applying it.”
The reason Powell contacted Drosendahl in the first place was that he’s now turned his fastidious fact-checking ability against longtime P-I film critic William Arnold. Powell says he originally read Arnold’s reviews on Yahoo! Movies and was impressed with his analysis. But factually, Powell found much to take issue with, as he claims to have discovered (to date) problems in 18 of the 29 Arnold reviews he’s read.
In July, he brought 14 of those errors to the P-I‘s attention. (He found the others after, as Powell puts it, “communication broke down.”) Drosendahl told SW that a handful of Arnold’s perceived mistakes were debatable; ultimately, six of Arnold’s reviews—of Rocky Balboa, Open Range, Michael Clayton, Cinderella Man, Gods and Generals, and Casino Royale—resulted in editor’s notes or corrections confirming the errors Powell pointed out.
Here are a couple of what Powell terms the “super howlers” in Arnold’s reviews. In his piece on Cinderella Man, Arnold wrote that Jim Braddock and his family lived in Chicago. They actually lived in New Jersey. This has since been noted online in a correction at the top of the review. In the same review, Arnold wrote that the Braddocks lived in a Hooverville shack. Powell points out that the Braddock home was a basement. Arnold also wrote that Braddock had been “overage” when he made his comeback, four years after his previous fight. Powell notes that Braddock was 28. These blemishes didn’t result in editor’s notes.
That’s not all. In a brief sidebar to his review of the movie Ali, Arnold wrote that Muhammad Ali’s nickname was “the Louisville Slugger.” It was actually “the Louisville Lip.” The P-I acknowledged this error at Powell’s behest. In Arnold’s review of Gods and Generals, he wrote that the film was based on a book by Michael Shaara, when in fact Shaara’s son Jeff was the author. The mistake was subsequently acknowledged in an editor’s note at the top of the review.
The editor’s notes stop here, but Powell feels there should be more. Here, Powell points to Arnold’s statement that Gods and Generals has most of the same actors as Gettysburg (the 1993 movie to which Gods and Generals is the prequel). Online, the word “most” has been changed to “several,” but there is no correction acknowledging this change. Some mistakes, Powell says, remain. For instance, Arnold writes that the script of Gods and Generals follows Stonewall Jackson “through the battles of Manassas, Fredericksburg, and other skirmishes leading up to Gettysburg.” There were no other “skirmishes” in the film, Powell notes.
Powell says he’s never tried to contact Arnold about these perceived mistakes. “I don’t have much time for frauds and idiots, and they don’t much like my work either,” he says. However, he is clear about his thoughts on Arnold in a voicemail left for Drosendahl at 2:49 a.m. PST on Saturday, Aug. 2 (the messages were forwarded to SW by legal counsel for the Hearst Corporation, which owns the P-I):
“I’m not saying that Bill Arnold is Jayson Blair, but the situation is congruent on a smaller size. I’m telling you you have a serious journalistic problem with Bill Arnold.”
Arnold failed to return multiple calls seeking a response to Powell’s claims.
Arnold is hardly the first journalist to have drawn Powell’s ire. In 1995, he sued Frank Blethen and The Seattle Times for $33.33. The Times had killed two op-ed columns Powell had authored, one about Canada and another on Dutch Harbor, Alaska. Powell claimed the money would have represented a reasonable kill fee for the two stories. The Times claimed that they don’t normally pay kill fees for op-ed pieces and that no written contract existed to suggest otherwise. The court tossed Powell’s case with prejudice. Powell appealed to King County Superior Court, but the judge there also dismissed the case, ruling that the court didn’t have jurisdiction since the amount in contention was less than $1,000.
Furthermore, Powell has been such a thorn in The Washington Post‘s side that the paper has canceled his subscription—for life, he claims. And in late August, Powell wrote to Greg Brock, senior editor in charge of corrections at The New York Times. In his communiqué, Powell points out errors in three film reviews, and then essentially asks for a job: “Whether as fulltime editor or some type of outside associate, I want to find a place, if such exists, where facts, performance and principle outrank politics and personalities—where the best at something can be valued and rewarded for being that, which advances the outlet’s mission. I’m advised there is no such place, including the Times. Recent years’ general news indicates you’re in worse shape in important ways than the Post. But I won’t know till I probe there.”
Brock wrote back via e-mail, asking Powell to “take a deep breath and listen,” noting that Powell’s conduct was hurting his cause. “My own assessment—after hearing from you so far—is that you are undercutting yourself,” said Brock.
On Aug. 25, Powell responded: “It may not make you tremble, but with more editors in both America and Canada now asking me for diverse episodes from my trail, you can bet I’ll be showing some clip including this sorry little episode about my first glances at the New York Times. In fact, I think the three for three start, and your attitude in reply as soon as it was clear that I really did back up my words, will be a useful vignette.”
Powell also asked Brock to acknowledge the errors that Powell said he had found. Brock has neither replied nor corrected the reviews Powell feels are flawed.
“They’re so goddamn arrogant,” Powell says of the Times. “They just can’t get their minds around the fact that there’s somebody out there who’s violently, drastically better at [copy editing than they are].” Neither the Post nor the Times returned SW‘s calls inviting them to respond to Powell’s assertions.
In his “War on Error,” as he calls it, Powell has found an ally in Richard J. Roth, Senior Associate Dean of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. In a letter of recommendation concerning Powell, Roth writes: “Mark Powell has a gift. He sees things that others, who should see them, cannot see.”
Powell touted this “gift” in his Aug. 2 voicemail to the P-I‘s Drosendahl: “I think it would be appropriate to note to the editors, along with what you have recently, that I still do this just at a glance. Because people like that don’t know me, haven’t talked to me. Even when they read Roth’s letter, they ask how does he do this? Well, I don’t know. I just see it.”
Seventeen days later, after Drosendahl stopped responding to him, Powell’s tone grew considerably sharper. “Shame on you,” Powell told Drosendahl in another voicemail. “If you want to simply deny the contribution that I’ve made and the time and effort that I’ve put in…I’m betting that I’ll find executives up there who will agree that I’ve treated the P-I a lot better than it’s treated me and that you just acted egregiously, considering that I just gave up paying work for the last few hours to give you examples of failure and decrepitude in your own paper. Shame on you; you can expect me to follow this up soon.”
Two days later, Powell left Drosendahl yet another voicemail, which contained the following passage: “What I can prove is that your film reviewer has desperate accuracy and integrity problems. And I’m here to tell you that I’m going to expose that, if you do not fairly acknowledge the work that I have done for free.”
In response, Jonathan Donnellan, general counsel for Hearst, wrote in a letter to Powell dated Aug. 25: “Your threats may be no more than an effort to intimidate Mr. Drosendahl, but they read like attempted blackmail and they will be dealt with as such if your conduct does not cease immediately.”
Donnellan declined to comment any further, while Drosendahl would offer only the following: “[Mark is] a smart guy and he finds errors. However, there are other things about him that cause problems. I don’t want to discuss it beyond that because I don’t want to get in a mudslinging contest with him.”
Powell denies trying to blackmail the P-I. “I told Glenn [Drosendahl] in a message, oh so clearly, that if he did not by Monday (last) issue a simple statement acknowledging my factual contribution to P-I accuracy and integrity, he should consider us in an adversarial relationship,” Powell says in an e-mail to SW. However, in a separate e-mail to SW, Powell freely admits asking the P-I to give him the chance to write “a couple of film reviews” or to cut him a check in exchange for his “freelance editing services.”
For a man as verbose as Powell, he’s remarkably tight-lipped about his personal history. He acknowledges that he’s almost 45 years old and his collar is blue, but won’t expound on his occupation beyond that. He says he’s worked as a copy editor for a major metropolitan newspaper, but won’t say which one, only that it ended in “absolute disaster.” Occasionally he’ll get an op-ed published in a major metropolitan newspaper informing readers of various errors he’s detected in the public realm. And his “War on Error” is an unpaid hobby, albeit a rather consuming one.
“I simply believe in it,” says Powell. “Somebody has to expose the real condition of the media.”