One of our most excellent blog-related adventures was our involvement with Bob Cox of The National Debate and his wacky IP-abusive go-round with the New York Times. Bob’s point was that Times columnists should be held to the fire (however lukewarm it is at the Times) every bit as much as the inkstained wretches in the working press for those rare moments when the Times deigns to correct its most egregious errors. There has been progress in that direction, but only a little. By and large Times columnists still have much more sway over their little patches of truth in the Newspaper of Record.
Mickey Kaus gives a classic breakdown of what happens when — as is still the case — op-ed page columnists are left entirely to their own devices to own up to their own mistakes, intentional or otherwise. The formula?
- Bond with your base: Make it clear that the enemy is forcing this so-called correction on you. “Of course it will turn out that the fuming right-wingers are right and Kristof is wrong. But that’s all the more reason for him to make sure his readers know whom to root for from the start!”
- Be picky about what you’re not buying. Deflate the value of your admission by removing low-hanging fruit from your critics’ branches.
- Keep hope alive! Don’t admit the finality of your error. “In one breath, it says ‘Hey, I might still be right!’ while drawing praise for its fairminded admission that this possibility is “unlikely.” It’s so much more complex and interesting than a vulgar, flatfooted word like ‘wrong.’
- Equal time for the planes that land safely: Remind everyone that you weren’t only wrong. Some of the stuff you wrote, in fact, was absolutely non-wrong. “[I]t’s good to be reminded of a sentence in the column that wasn’t wrong.”
- In the end, it doesn’t matter if the Hitler Diaries are real or not! Yep. “Fake but accurate” time, and besides, let’s prioritize here! As Kristof says:
More generally, I find the attacks on a private citizen like Wilson rather distasteful. Sure, he injected himself into the public arena with his op-ed column and TV appearances, and so some scrutiny is fair. But I figure it’s more important to examine and probe the credibility of, say, the vice president than a retired ambassador.
But does anyone of authority at the NYT endorse Kristof’s sentiment? It’s allright to scrutinize federal officials but actively “distasteful” to scrutinize former officials who lead loud public election-year campaigns against them? Is Kristof suggesting that he should be let off the hook because it was more important to blast Cheney than get Wilson right? (A: Yes.)
Now the part journalists — bloggers, too (and maybe even lawyers?) — of all stripes should remember:
Kristof shouldn’t be ashamed of his columns. He broke an important story. The first press accounts of an event often get non-trivial details wrong. But why not just admit it when that happens?
UPDATE: Kaus is literally laugh-out-loud funny on his (permalink-less, but try here) update about how Kristof, evidently stung by criticisim of his weaselly “correction,” has gone back and changed it:
Luckily, I have a printed-out hard copy of Kristof’s original, presumably dumber,** version, which I will mail to anyone who wants it for only $49.95.! Call it TimesSelectClassic. … You have to hand it to the NYT web management team–they keep discovering new revenue opportunities.
**–kf cannot verify that the old version is dumber, because according to Maguire Kristof has added additional dumbness in draft #2–lamenting that Valerie Plame’s “career at CIA has been destroyed,” though he’d called that claim “hyperbole” in a column two years ago. Removing all evidence of that earlier column will be more difficult, involving as it does a visit to every library in the world armed with scissors and Liquid Paper. … 1:52 A.M.
Now for the less funny and more profound part:
I’m not saying bloggers should never revise after hitting “publish.” Maybe they shouldn’t, but I rewrite sentences all the time–if an emailer makes a good objection or I just have second thoughts. But it does become Orwellian at some point–i.e. when you redo a column after you’ve been publicly attacked for some stupidity to make it look as if there was never any stupidity to attack. …