Nothing so warms as the heart as a good old journalistic screw-up, especially when the self-righteous watchdogs of democracy and unforgiving judges of other people’s failures in the most almighty media are forced to admit that they are also mere humans. We had a good chuckle, therefore, to hear about The Washington Post’s premature announcement that Vice President Joe Biden has entered the Democratic presidential race.
The story was quickly retracted, profusely apologized for, and we don’t for a moment believe there was any nefarious intent. There was a for-internal-use-only “slug” on top of the story and “XX” markings where information was apparently supposed to be updated, so it was clearly pre-written copy intended to be used in the event that Biden did announce his candidacy, and some unlucky Postman or another simply hit a “send” rather than a “save” button and inadvertently thus sent it out over the internet. Anyone who thinks that the mistake indicates some inside knowledge of a Biden candidacy should know the paper almost certainly has another story in its computer files about how Biden has announced he isn’t running, and that it could have just as easily been the one that was published by a click on the wrong button.
We have some sympathy for the accidental offender, as even our humble operation has occasionally clicked on the “publish” icon rather than the “saved” icon and thus sent out unfinished and un-headlined columns to those readers kind enough to “follow” us on their “mobile devices” or those who just happened drop by during the short interval before the article was finished and headlined, although we can proudly note that has only resulted in some momentary confusion and a chance to watch how our word craft is so carefully polished, and it has never obliged us to apologize that what we posted was completely untrue, even if it was slightly incoherent. During our long years of toil for the local newspaper we gave first-hand witness to some truly spectacular and thoroughly retracted journalistic screw-ups, too, and on one occasion long ago very early in our obituary-writing days it was entirely our fault, so we try not to be too judgmental or self-righteous about such things. Still, this error seems to have resulted from journalistic tendencies that can be easily corrected.
Almost of all of those spectacular and thoroughly retracted journalist screw-ups we witnessed first-hand resulted from some editor or another’s insistence that the truth be written up and published before it could possibly be known. On one still locally infamous occasion two of the local aircraft manufacturers were vying for a sizable military contract, and in a city where aviation is still the most significant component of the local economy the editors were very interested in the outcome of the competition, and the poor fellow on the aviation beat, who was a good reporter and a buddy of ours, was under intense pressure to announce the result before the government or any of the television stations did. He buckled under and went with his best sources and best guess, both of which turned out to be completely wrong, and the winning company paid for a full-page in the local media’s satirical “Gridiron” revue to show a photo-shopped Harry Truman holding up the local newspaper’s headline where “Dewey Beats Truman” used to be. Our friend’s career never recovered, the careers of the editors who insisted on reporting the news before it happened never suffered, and we see it happen all the time.
Editors seem all the more eager to publish the truth they prefer before it can possibly be known. Nearly every mass shooting, even the frequent ones that occur abroad, usually begin with editorial assumptions that soon require more inconspicuous retractions. Natural catastrophes and real unemployment rates during Republican administrations seem prone to inconspicuous retractions than during Democrat administrations, too, and we can’t count how many times the “Tea Party” has been inconspicuously retracted from stories. Pretty much all the coverage of the unpredictable Democratic and Republican presidential primaries has been unaccountably cocksure, and the watchdogs of democracy and unforgiving judges of other people’s faults seem as ever.
Not that we’re entirely averse to the time-honored newspaper practice of writing up two plausible alternative stories in advance, just in case you’re right enough to be able to get a few minutes ahead of the competition. Many election cycles ago we were relegated to some forgettable congressional race, and as our deeply buried dispatches warned it turned out to be a nail-biter. Foreseeing this we had written three stories, with lots of “XX” markings for last-minute-before-deadline information, and one proclaimed candidate “A” the victor and the other one candidate “B,” and the third apologizing that as of press time no victor was apparent, yet even 10 minutes before deadline our editor was demanding a submission. With the latest polling numbers showing a single-digit margin we agreed to hand in the third option, but she rather haughtily insisted we tell our readers the outcome whether we knew it or not. She wound up as a the big-time editor at a newspaper down south, which happened to be one of the last two-newspaper towns left in America and where her drunken-driving arrest was front page fodder for the competitor, and we’re proud to say we withheld our byline from any story that purported to tell the truth before it was known.
Those pre-written stories almost always need to be re-written, too. By the time Biden does or doesn’t get into the race the storyline will be much different, and will need to include Donald Trump’s latest “tweet,” and the who, what, where, when, and why of a couple day’s ago will seem incoherent by the time paper hits your front door step, and your best bet to spare you a spectacular journalistic scandal and complete retraction is that third option conceding that you really don’t know what the hell is going on. So long as you keep your computer files free of any more cocky files, you won’t have this kind of embarrassment. Besides, the presses run all night and you’re going to be on the doorsteps of your readers before they wake up, and after the electronic media have beat you to the wrong story, so take a little extra time to get it right.
— Bud Norman