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Media Gets Things Wrong -- Who Knew?

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If columnists want to follow tradition, they'll face a binary choice at this time of year. Look back over the 12 months just gone -- or look forward to those to come.

I've generally tended to avoid trying to predict the future. (Last year, when I gave in to the temptation, I got one entirely obvious prediction right, of course -- the surge, if you'll pardon the phrase, of Titanic coverage around the disaster's April centenary. But I got one grim expectation utterly wrong, thankfully... that Nelson Mandela would likely die in 2012.)

I'm much more safely choosing to look back this year. And little affords me -- and countless columnists like me -- more laughter and shudders combined than reviewing a year of the news media's most egregious errors.

The inevitable leader in the profession's howlers, on which every American media-consumer will surely agree, is the enormous journalistic mistake -- committed in coverage of one of the year's biggest stories, and carried by two very different cable-news channels.

It was both CNN and Fox News who spectacularly misreported Chief Justice John Roberts' (possibly deliberately booby-trapped) announcement of the Supreme Court's judgment on constitutionality in the case of President Barack Obama's Affordable Health Care Act.

As he recited his way through the court's 5-4 majority decision, Roberts first mentioned the finding that the Act's controversial individual mandate, compelling all of us to buy health insurance, was contrary to the Constitution's Commerce Clause. Hell of a kind broke out. The two rival networks rushed at almost equal speed (CNN was actually first) to conclude that the Act had thus been judged unconstitutional. Headlines proclaiming "Supreme Ct Kills Individual Mandate" and "Supreme Court Finds Health Care Individual Mandate Unconstitutional" filled both network's screens.

The broadcasters didn't hold their horses long enough to learn that Roberts was going on to say that the overarching constitutional power of Congress to levy taxation trumped this earlier finding, in fact legitimized the law's 'individual mandate' -- and thus the Act survived.

In keeping with the tenor of our times, both networks also rushed to get this mistaken "news" out on all other platforms besides the TV screen, webpaging it, tweeting it, emailing it, RSS-feeding it, the lot.

In the end the two equally erring parties became distinguishable to the media-consuming public not so much by the snafu itself, but by how they dealt with it once the truth broke through.

As reporters they both quickly corrected the error -- spelling out very carefully what the real judgment was. But it was Fox executives (those very specially-evolved creatures of Medialand) who decided to add their network's own self-justifying excuse: "We gave our viewers the news as it happened," said their weasel-like statement.

Rather as in politics, the quality of journalism is often defined by how a misstep is handled after the event -- pace Fox's weak effort at rationalization. That's why media organizations' Corrections sections make such revealing -- and often hilarious -- reading. The San Francisco Chronicle defines the purpose of such sections very well, speaking for all the respectable journalistic universe:

"The Chronicle strives to cover the news accurately, fairly and honestly. It is our policy to correct significant errors of fact or misleading statements."

So it was certainly startling to see that a Chronicle story about the Holy Redeemer Church Hall in the city's Castro district had asserted a drag-queen known as Peaches Christ had appeared there, "with a dildo shaped like a crucifix."

A Chronicle correction spelled out the truth:

"He did not appear at the event. Nor does he use the prop."

In a different realm, such authoritative factual clarification might qualify for a certain ex-CIA director's now rarely-used category of "slam dunk."

I've relied over many years (and not just for year-end compilations) on my home-town journal-of-record, the New York Times, to provide me with engaging items in its much-admired Corrections column. This year -- maybe to the paper's great credit, though to my personal disappointment -- there have been fewer of note. Just one caught my eye, after a piece by Journalism and English professor Ben Yagoda appeared, referring to our city's legendary writer E. B. White.

"An earlier version of this article misidentified the number of years E.B. White wrote for The New Yorker. It was five decades, not centuries."

One publication I've been a bit hard on recently, Vogue, deserves at least some credit for assiduously correcting a mistake. It occurred in the course of an otherwise unremarkable profile of Chelsea Clinton in the magazine's traditionally gigantic September issue. Perhaps there was just too much text to proof-read.

"Dan Baer was mistakenly identified as an interior designer. He is deputy assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor at the U.S.Department of State."

Oh c'mon, Vogue. That's an easy mistake to make...

Read more of David Tereshchuk's media industry insights at his weekly column, The Media Beat, with accompanying video and audio. Listen also to The Media Beat podcasts on demand from Connecticut's NPR station WHDD, and at iTunes.