Thursday, September 11, 2003

George Will lie still out there, Day 12

So, Michael Getler hasn't gotten back with me yet by phone or e-mail. (For the story so far, go here.) I started thinking that maybe I was being unfair. Maybe it's not his job to provide a correction of this type. I mean the definition of an ombudsman -- one that investigates reported complaints (as from students or consumers), reports findings, and helps to achieve equitable settlements -- doesn't necessarily mean that his job is to, you know, investigate my complaint, report his findings and achieve an equitable settlement, right?

Getler, though, said it is. In a column about how the The New York Times needed to get over its fear of nitpickers (note the little N), Getler said it was a good thing when a newspaper was corrected. Correcting your mistakes, he said, correlates directly to your credibility.

In presenting these and other changes, the new executive editor, Bill Keller, said the paper traditionally had resisted employing an ombudsman. "We worried that it would foster nitpicking and navel-gazing, that it might undermine staff morale and, worst of all, that it would absolve other editors of their responsibility to represent the interests of readers." Those are all legitimate concerns, but I wouldn't worry about them, especially nitpicking. Readers sometimes offer big challenges, but they also like to nitpick, and they are good at it. The more "small" mistakes they find in stories that they know something about, the more they question the bigger stuff.

Maybe I have standards which are too high. I went to journalism school in the military, after all. Defense Information School was a tough, tough school and I had one of the most feared/respected instructors in the whole program, Master Gunnery Sergeant Hobbs. A Marine who had fought in Vietnam, stood well over 6'3" tall and looked (and sounded) like a fit James Earl Jones, he was intimidating and inspiring. I still remember his declaration that, without credibility, a reporter is worth nothing to his newspaper and a newspaper is worth nothing to its readers. That's where I'm coming from and maybe that clouds my judgment.

But Will's error wasn't just a "small mistake." The point of it was to suggest that a man who served our country admirably for over 30 years was lying. It's what Master Gunny Hobbs would have called a "major error-in-fact" (a minor error-in-fact would be an incorrect title, say, calling someone the commander of a unit instead of the commanding officer, as they are different titles for different services). If you were lucky, you would have failed the assignment. If it wasn't your day, you were on your face doing pushups. Many of them.

Michael Getler, get down beside George there and give me 20.

Update: For the record, I've left messages for both Fred Hyatt, editorial section editor, and Michael Getler this morning. Commence holding breath... Now!

You can leave them messages yourself, don't forget. Fred's phone number is 202.334.7471 and Mike's is 334.7582.


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