There’s nothing more revealing about a news medium than the way it deals with its own errors. Is it, to use human terms, honest, forthright, and sincerely sorry, or is it evasive, sneaky, and dishonest?
One might think that almost all news media outlets would fit into the first category, but over the years I’ve run into many that don’t.
I’ve known editors who felt that running a correction was a black mark on their own personal reputation, and they would refuse to run a correction, in hopes that no one would notice the original error. And if no one called to complain, they’d think, “Whew, dodged a bullet on that one.”
But even if no one complains, many, many others will notice the error and just file it away in that part of the brain labeled Dwindling Confidence In This Paper’s Credibility.
Some errors are easy to correct. Typos, misspellings, and misstated titles on public officials are some examples. But sometimes reporters and editors blow it spectacularly, and corrections shine a spotlight on these embarrassing gaffes.
I knew an editorial writer once who editorialized against a planned tool-and-die factory to be located along the Chattahoochee River in Georgia. He worried that the “dye” from the factory might foul the river.
As embarrassing as that was, he dutifully corrected himself the next day. That was 43 years ago, and I still remember it, which shows you how hard it is to live down some of these errors.
On Feb. 13, New York Times editorial page editor Gail Collins wrote a column in which she chastised Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker for his “war on public employees,” citing cuts in “state aid to education” under Walker as being responsible for teacher layoffs.
There was only one problem: All of the cuts and policies she cited occurred before Walker took office in 2011.
Now, this is a type of error that should have the writer cringing in embarrassment, and, if they’re honest, eager to set the record straight, as painful as it might be. But what did The New York Times and Gail Collins do? Nothing.
For six days Collins’ column remained uncorrected online. As far as I can tell, it was never corrected in print. Finally, on Feb. 19, the paper appended a correction to the bottom of her column online, a correction that essentially says, “Hey, all that stuff you just read above is total hogwash.”
This was a gaffe of Emily Litella proportions. The paper should have written a big “NEVER MIND” and pulled the column. Instead, with the correction at the bottom, people still are linking to it, and others are reading it not knowing that it is based on a huge error, to give the benefit of the doubt to Collins, or lie, to be less charitable.
This is no way to run a newspaper, much less one of America’s “prestige” newspapers.
Jon Ham (@rivlax) is Vice President for Communications at the John Locke Foundation and publisher of Carolina Journal.