February 01, 2007
Should Journalists Correct Their Errors?

That's the question I have for four local journalists*, Knute Berger, Susan Paynter, Steve Scher, and Danny Westneat.

First, some background:  Last September, after the Plame "scandal"** collapsed, David Broder wrote a column urging journalists who had hyped this "scandal" to apologize to Karl Rove, and to stick to the facts in the future.  After the Broder column appeared, the four discussed it on the Weekday program.  The host, Scher, asked the other three whether they intended to apologize.  Berger said that he would not, because Rove was guilty of other things.  (Berger made, as I recall, no specific charges.)  The other three seemed to find Berger's position . . . amusing.

If we put the matter abstractly, what Berger was saying was that journalists should not correct their errors — if the correction would help a Republican.  Or perhaps even more narrowly, a Republican Berger especially dislikes.  You don't have to be a logician to see that anyone who agrees with Berger should answer "no" to my original question, perhaps saying that journalists should correct errors when the corrections help politicians they like, but not when the corrections help politicians they dislike.

If this is not what Steve Scher, Susan Paynter, and Danny Westneat believe, along with Knute Berger, they should say so.  In particular, they should say whether Berger should correct his own errors on the Plame "scandal".

And because this episode left me even more suspicious of our "mainstream" journalists, the four may want to answer the following questions, which may give them some idea of how common errors are — and how often they go uncorrected:

  • The Seattle Times editorial page editor, James Vesely, misplaced Okanogan County.   Should he have made a formal correction, as well as printing a letter noting the error?
  • Three local journalists, David Ammons of the Associated Press, David Postman of the Seattle Times, and former journalism professor Floyd McKay all forgot that the "Northwest", as ordinarily defined, includes Idaho.  Should the three correct their errors?   (Fun fact: President Bush won the popular vote in the Northwest in the 2000 election, though not in the 2004 election.)
  • Seattle PI columnist Joel Connelly made at least three errors in this column, implying that President Bush's cabinet was not bipartisan, saying that FDR had not tried to use the 1942 North African landings to help his party politically, and saying that the landings were "bloodless".  (For the facts, see this post.)  Should Connelly correct his errors?  (He did not reply when I sent him an email noting the errors, nor did the PI publish a letter I sent them making the same points.)
  • NPR's John Ydstie made a common mistake, misstating what President Bush had said in his 2003 State of the Union Speech.  Should Ydstie correct his error?  (Ydstie was so deceptive on another story that I now would have trouble believing him if he said that the sky was blue.  And, yes, his mistakes all do seem to run in one ideological direction.)
  • KUOW runs a program on Wednesday nights, Alternative Radio, from a group I like to call the "Chomsky cult".  When I listen to the program (which I haven't for some time), I nearly always hear serious errors.  Should those running this program correct those errors?  And if they will not, should KUOW provide a forum so that others can correct the errors?
  • Has your own news organization looked for mistakes in its coverage of the Plame "scandal", corrected them, and apologized, as David Broder urged?

If there is one lesson I would like these four (and other journalists) to take from this post, it is this:  If journalists do not correct their errors, the public will no longer trust journalists — rightly.  These four (and other journalists) may want to consult recent polls on journalists to see whether the distrust has already begun to grow.  And these four (and other journalists) may want to think about the way that bloggers spread doubts when journalists refuse to make corrections — as so many journalists do, when those corrections come from outside.   And I will give them this hint: The case of Dan Rather is, I think, particularly instructive.

Finally, let me say something about my own motives, just so there is no misunderstanding.  I very much want our local news organizations, especially the newspapers, to succeed.  But I do not think they can succeed by continuing to do the same things that have led so many readers to distrust them.  Wise patients will listen to the warnings from a pathologist, and wise journalists will correct their errors, even if a correction helps a politician they dislike.

Cross posted at Jim Miller on Politics.

(*Berger was, for many years, the editor of a local alternative newspaper, the Seattle Weekly.   Paynter is a columnist for the Seattle PI.  Scher hosts a talk program at the local NPR affiliate, KUOW, Weekday.  Westneat is a columnist for the Seattle Times.

**If you have forgotten the details on the Plame "scandal", here are the essentials:  In his 2003 State of the Union speech, President Bush said: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."  Former ambassador Joseph Wilson went to Niger and talked to some officials informally, over tea.  They told him that trade representatives from Saddam had visited the country in recent years.  Since Niger has almost nothing to sell, except uranium, CIA analysts considered this weak supporting evidence for the Bush conclusion.

Outrageously, Wilson used the trip to Niger to claim that Bush had lied.  And dozens of journalists swallowed his story, and his succeeding story that the Bush administration had "outed" his wife in revenge.

A study of British intelligence failures before the Iraq War, the Butler Report, explicitly supported what President Bush had said in that State of the Union speech.

In short, President Bush told the truth and former ambassador Wilson did not.  But many journalists continue to believe Wilson rather than Bush, though the essential facts have been available for years.  And a laughably large number of journalists confused Niger with Africa.   As a point of simple logic, Wilson's visit to Niger could not discredit Bush's claim about Africa, since there are other uranium producing nations in Africa.

Confession:  After an earlier post on another Weekday program, a commenter wondered why I listened to the show.  I do so for somewhat the same reason that a pathologist examines tissue samples.  The pathologist is looking for evidence that may explain failures, and so am I.

Note to commenters:  I have closed this post for comments to give the four a chance to reply without any distractions.  Depending on what they do, I will either open it or provide a separate post for comments,)

Posted by Jim Miller at February 01, 2007 05:12 PM | Email This