03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Spencer Ackerman's Self-Correction: This Is How Stories Should Be Retracted

Spencer Ackerman is a friend of mine and a reporter whose expertise and ecumenical fairness are resources I've come to trust. He's also demonstrated a hardcore willingness to get his body to where the news is happening -- whether its simply trooping out to an obscure but important Congressional hearing, or strapping on the body armor to head to FOB Salerno in Afghanistan.

Yesterday, Ackerman reported out a story about a teleconference between U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry and the National Security Council, an account predicated on the word of a single source, which subsequently came undone as new facts came to the fore.

The reason Ackerman will continue to be a trusted reporter, in my view, is because when you have to retract a story, you should do it like this:

My original source for the post stands by the account provided. The individual, a National Security Council staffer who spoke on condition of anonymity, has provided truthful and verified information on past stories, and so I trusted the source for this one. Elements of the account have been subsequently borne out: yesterday afternoon, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said that President Obama will ask his Afghanistan-Pakistan advisers to provide him with an exit strategy for the eight-year war, which is congruent with but not identical to my source's information that Obama has asked the team to derive timetables for troop withdrawal.

But there are greater problems with the post. For one, the source was not actually present for the video teleconference that is the post's central scene, and passed information to me second-hand. Furthermore, not only has the White House's Tommy Vietor denied, on the record, that Ambassador Karl Eikenberry participated in a video teleconference yesterday morning, but the other two individuals I named as being present for the meeting -- the inspector generals for Iraq and Afghanistan -- have, through representatives, denied being present. I cannot subsequently stand by this account.

From the start, the post should have a) more clearly indicated that my source wasn't present at the meeting; b) more clearly indicated that the account provided was single-sourced; and c) verified the information provided before publication. My enthusiasm for a hot story outpaced my professional judgment. For that I take full responsibility, retract the story and issue a full apology for its publication.

It's a pretty rare thing for a reporter to offer a thorough itemization of all the errors of a story and how they came about, let alone an admission that "enthusiasm for a hot story outpaced my professional judgment." Yet, this should be the standard.

Additionally, as far as I can tell, Ackerman returned to all of the venues where he distributed his original, and distributed the retraction, ensuring that it would have equal dissemination.

I'd also note that over at the Washington Independent, the original story remains, reformatted to appear with the original text struck through. This is a unique feature of online journalism. Rather than allowing a factual mistake to drop into the memory hole, it remains available for readers. More importantly, it remains a part of the writer's body of work. I've always admired this tradition. It breeds a certain amount of humility, and it reminds us that the richness of our experience is often most strongly derived from our mistakes.

A Retraction of My Eikenberry Post [The Washington Independent]

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