As reported earlier, The Daily Beast's Howard Kurtz had to offer up an amazing correction today, owing to the fact that in a Nov. 27 post, he incorrectly referred to Kurt Bardella, the spokesman for Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), as Darrell Issa himself. Said correction goes like this:
When I conducted the telephone interview for my Nov. 27 article on California Rep. Darrell Issa, my unambiguous understanding was that I was speaking with Rep. Issa. I subsequently learned that I was speaking to his chief spokesman, Kurt Bardella. None of the views ascribed to Issa are inaccurate, but the attribution throughout the story should have been to his spokesman, not to the congressman. We have since corrected the article. The earlier version also mentioned Darrell Issa's "tendency to refer to himself in the third person." In fact, that usage was appropriate because the interview was with his spokesman.
All in all, pretty hilarious! But if we could get serious for a moment, let's remember that we live in an age of extraordinary disruption in the media. The workload is immense, and the rise of social-media tools that allow us to very quickly disseminate information has imposed a burden of alacrity on us all. And in this accelerated culture, the tools we have been given aren't always up to the task -- a lot of us are using "phones" that cannot actually place or hold a call, because who thought that was going to be important? You know, for a phone.
Because pride goeth before a fall, I thought we should review some techniques that will prevent us all from making these sorts of mistakes in the future. Nothing that any of the elites over at the Poynter Institute need to nerd out over, just some basic stuff.
1. Who am I talking to again?
As Kurtz relates: "That afternoon my phone rang, I heard the words "Darrell Issa" and I thanked the congressman for calling." But as it turns out, he was speaking to Kurt Bardella, Issa's spokesman. What's the teachable moment here? Well, you may have heard the words "Darrell Issa," in there, but some of the words you didn't hear may have been even more important. Words like "Hello, this is Kurt Bardella from Congressman," and "office, calling for Howard Kurtz." Did you only manage to pick out two words from a 14-word sentence? Chances are, if you ask the caller to just repeat what he said, you'll end up being richly rewarded for your efforts.
2. Wait! Why is Darrell Issa calling me?
This is an important cue that you should pay close attention. If anyone from Darrell Issa's office is on the phone with you, you may be getting subpoenaed for some reason. Take a second to ask yourself, "What have I done wrong?" and "What high-level corruption am I a party to?" Depending on how you answer that question, you may want to find an artful way of terminating the call until you have the opportunity to speak to a lawyer and/or "bag-man." Even if you think you're pretty much in the clear, it pays to take a moment to get sharp. Your heightened sense of paranoia will probably make you more prone to remember details, like the name of the person to whom you are talking.
3. Got lingering doubts? Get more precise.
Let's say you find yourself halfway into a call with someone who you can only recall said the words "Darrell Issa" at some point, and doubt is starting to set in about the identity of the person on the other end of the line, and you don't want to "pull a Kurtz." You've been going at it for about 10 minutes, clearly speaking as if you are talking to Darrell Issa. The person on the other end isn't saying anything about it, but something feels a little off, nonetheless. How can you smoothly correct the situation? Here is a technique: Ask the caller, "I'm sorry, just to be clear, how do you spell your name again?" I mean, "Darrell" has a number of different spellings, it's a totally understandable question. If the person you're talking to responds by saying, "K-U-R-T-B-A-R-D-E-L-L-A," that's a solid clue that you aren't talking to Darrell Issa.
4. If you have to pen a correction, don't pen an accompanying article that includes contradictions or obvious blame-deflecting.
A correction is a place for you to tell your readers: what you did wrong; how it came to pass that you got it wrong; and what you plan to do differently to ensure it won't happen again, to the best of your ability. That's sufficient to the task! Do that and move on with your life -- there will be a funnier correction on Regret The Error next week that everyone will be talking about, anyway. Don't say things like this: "Bardella had never told me that during the conversation, though there was one reference to 'Darrell Issa' that I attributed to lawmakers sometimes speaking of themselves in the third person." Is it true that Bardella "never told you?" Because a minute ago you were saying, "that afternoon my phone rang," and "I heard the words 'Darrell Issa.'" Sounds like an even money bet that you just didn't hear the words "Kurt Bardella."
5. If you have to pen a correction, don't sit around twiddling your thumbs for two months before doing so.
That way, it greatly reduces the possibility that some jerkwad will pen a five-point checklist on how to conduct a phone interview.