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RJ Eskow

RJ Eskow

Posted: February 27, 2006 04:58 PM

Errata and Amends: When Bloggers (or Journalists) Make Mistakes


Like anybody who writes for public consumption, I'm always in danger of making a highly visible error. And since those of us who write opinion pieces usually don't do primary-source journalism, we're dependent on third-party sources. The biggest such source is the mainstream media -- the same media we're constantly criticizing for its poor handling of the facts.

The task of self-correction is made more difficult by the fact that the people most likely to point out your errors are people who hate you and everything you stand for. It takes special effort to listen to vitriolic words and try to find the truth in them. But I do it. For me, that makes it even less excusable that journalists like Jim Brady and Deborah Howell of the Washington Post are so unwilling to do the same.

Take this Halliburton piece I posted earlier today. I had researched and cited MSM news reports to draw my conclusion that Dick Cheney had lied, and would benefit personally from Halliburton's financial performance. Amidst the subsequent comments about my "complete dishonesty," "use of innuendo," and statements like "try a little ... honesty for a change," I found a comment which linked to Factcheck.org. Following the link, I found enough evidence to convince me my statements about Cheney's personal benefit were wrong.

What do you do in a case like that? Well, if you're Brady and Howell you keep repeating your unsubstantiated statement (theirs was that Jack Abramoff "directed" his clients to give money to Democrats, despite the absence of any evidence that he did). In defense, you cite the "nasty" comments you received and make that -- rather than your own error -- the topic of discussion.

Most pundits and commentators do the same. Why? For one thing, there's less respect for the truth today than ever before. Facts themselves are available for twisting to suit any partisan position, and that's tragic. For another, corrections are embarrassing and messy. Who wants to publicly admit they made a mistake? Lastly, it's hard to put aside the upwelling of adrenaline you feel when someone attacks you personally long enough to weigh the merits of their position.

Personally, I think we need more corrections and apologies. I've also been told it's good for your spiritual health to take stock of your own actions and, when wrong, to be willing to make amends.

I've done it before, mostly in private. The most recent case came when I criticized a well-known commentator and, in passing, suggested he wasn't the best-looking guy around. He objected by email (his note was, reasonably enough, entitled "Hey ..."), observed that I "don't look like I'm ready for a screen test either," and said that in his opinion I hadn't fairly summarized his position.

What did I do? I apologized if I hurt his feelings, allowed as I wasn't a "pretty boy" either, and offered to print verbatim any response to my post he might want to present. He declined the last offer, but that's not the point: I made it in good faith.

I'm not Bill O'Reilly: If you've got a point to make, I'll hear you out. If I'm wrong, I'll own up to it -- even if the truth doesn't serve my side of the argument. (And to be fair to O'Reilly, he's one of the few pundits who regularly provides any type of correction on a routine basis.)

That's why I promptly corrected myself today. I hope others will do the same. In that spirit, I offer this list of past errors I have made in my writing, together with my apologies:

1. In Muslim Haters, Fun With Numbers, and Sex With Animals I should not have suggested that Alan Dershowitz is a Muslim hater. In retrospect, I wish I had used the words "Muslim basher." I don't know his personal sentiments about Muslims, and should not have characterized him that way.

2. In Shot Through The Heart And You're to Blame: Conservatism as Psychopathology I should have made it clearer up front that I was comparing the false "conservatism" of leading pundits and politicians to a form of mental illness, not conservatism itself. It's hard for genuine rank-and-file conservatives to read a lede like mine and not have their blood boil so much that they can't properly absorb the rest of my argument.

3. The head of the video blog mentioned in this piece objected to my characterizing her organization as right-leaning.

4. In a piece entitled Was The Universe Intelligently Designed ... by Satan? I suggested that the Dark One was responsible for Michael Bolton's cover version of "When a Man Loves a Woman." There is no evidence for that assertion, and I apologize to Mr. Bolton. Satan, for his part, also disclaims any responsibility for that recording.

5. I was wrong when I told that commentator that I am not a "pretty boy." I am, in fact, quite pretty -- although "boyishly handsome" would be more accurate. (I checked with my wife, and she confirms it.) I was only placating the guy when I denied the existence of my rugged charm.

There! I've done it! My critics and opponents may use this as an opportunity to bash me some more, but that's not the point: the point is honesty, not winning arguments. Believe me, I feel better now.

Mr. Russert, Mr. Matthews, friends at the Washington Post -- I recommend it. It's good for the soul.

A Night Light

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