Saturday, September 19, 2009

The facts of death. And politics.

Regular readers know that I'm no fan of so-called gotcha! journalism. At least not for its own sake. But this latest gaffe on Obama's partusing a poignant anecdote about an uninsured cancer patient that turned out to be falseis just plain dumb. Stooo-pid. And as readers also know from that whole James Frey debacle, I'm not one of those folks who subscribes to "apocryphal truth": the argument that goes, "Well, even if something isn't strictly true, it could be, and it makes a point that needs making." I have to agree with critics who say that even though it's just a minor point that anybody could've gotten wrong, and even though the original screw-up was apparently Slate's, and even though this one mistake doesn't change the overall picture of healthcare in America, and even though with or without this cancer patient there are still 47 million uninsured Americanseven though all that may still be truethis episode does not speak well of the degree to which the Obama camp vets its platforms.

A quick story. My first magazine cover, back in 1982, was a complex piece for Harper's about the Catholic Church and its finances.* (My editor was the brilliant Michael Kinsley, serving
an interim stint that briefly interrupted the long, distinguished tenure of Lewis Lapham. Kinsley gave my piece the tantalizing title, "Under the Robes.") As you might imagine, the project involved a ton of diligent reporting, and the resulting manuscript contained a commensurate amount of facts, figures and vignettes. Well aware of the visibility of Harper's and the plum that this could be for my nascent career in magazine journalism, I rigorously double- and triple-checked every fact. I saw galleys** throughout the editing process, and all seemed well.

When I got the actual magazine and began excitedly leafing through my story, something hit me funny. I went back and compared the
published version to my final manuscript, which by then I'd pretty much committed to memory, and I realized that sure enough, early in the piece, a date had been screwed up. We were off by one year. It was, again, a trivial point that had nothing to do with the accuracy of any of the numbers involving money. Sort of like doing a major piece on Winston Churchill's historical significance and being an inch off on his height. Maybe even less serious than that.

But what do you think the Catholic Church said in its impassioned rebuttal to the piece? More or less
I don't have the letter handy"Salerno's shoddy reporting begins with an erroneous date and goes downhill from there." Now, my reporting wasn't shoddy. The only factual error was the one date, and it wasn't even my error. The change had been made after I approved the last set of galleys. No matter. We had given my critics an opening. We had given them something to say, and they said it. I can't tell you how many times I used that example years later in teaching journalism, as a way of emphasizing the importance of doing your legwork and getting it right.

Mr. Obama, we're on your side. At least I am. It's just that the stakes here are awfully high, and dumb mistakes don't help. Please check your facts before you go public with something. Flubs like this undermine your credibility. Besides, amid the current political climate, if you say you got your last burger at McDonald's and it turns out to have been Burger King instead, Hannity will say it's a typical socialist ploy.

* I was very lucky early in my writing career; any writers reading this know that you don't usually start out your career with covers for Harper's. The hard lessons didn't come till some time later.
** pre-publication proofs, which back then were sent out in hard copy via the mails. My how times have changed.

2 comments:

Elizabeth said...

This is indeed unfortunate, Steve. Yikes. I'm talking both about Obama and "your" date error.

Obama seems curiously (or not) distanced and needlessly "objective" when he brings up those concrete cases of how our health "care" system fails people. I noticed that during his speech to Congress. There are so many blood-boiling real life examples he could use to make his point, complete with names, faces and details, that I wonder why he goes for an anecdote like this one.

And he will be on five(!) Sunday talk shows tomorrow... Let's hope he won't shoot himself, and all of us (OK, most of us), in the foot.

Anonymous said...

I was writing a blog post celebrating Constitution Day, September 17th, and went on Google to find a copy of the Constitution. The top-rated site announced that the Constitution was signed into law on September 17th, 1787, twelve years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Um, but wait a moment, wasn't the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, the reason why we celebrate the Fourth of July as a national holiday? Perhaps my math is faulty, but I'd have said that was eleven years, not twelve, no matter how "official" this website appeared to be. And that's how I called it in my post. Again, maybe not an earth-shattering flaw, but you'd think somebody could have subtracted 1776 from 1787 and gotten it right...