Writing, and righting, a wrong

As noted on the LAO Blog, Los Angeles Times Calendar TV Critic Mary McNamara made one of those mistakes the other day, the kind that all writers dread, yet eagerly ridicule when a colleague falls prey.

Readers can be almost as vicious.

Nothing else is like this. Make a mistake in the day-to-day course of most any other profession and, at worst, a few dozen people become aware of it. But do so in a newspaper and you quickly learn to understand why reporters can come off as cocky. If they didn't keep their confidence (some might say "egos") pumped up, they'd deflate daily at their desks.

The initial responses of writers vary, though most I've known jump right to denial and do all they can to prove the mistake is no mistake. Once the error is verified as an error, the next step is often to blame the copy desk: If they didn't inject that nonsense, then why in God's name didn't they catch it? A writer I knew in the late '80s became notorious for blaming his every gaffe on his computer, as though that boxy cyclops of a Mac had achieved consciousness and was determined to get him terminated.

But not Ms. McNamara.

When next I teach a journalism course, I will distribute copies of her LAT Show Tracker blog entry from yesterday (04/21/2008) -- A TV critic's walk of shame -- and explain that this is how to do the right thing, and do it with class. Before there was an Internet, newspapers never did anything like this. Here's an excerpt:

If you want to know if anyone is reading your stories, make sure you insert a mistake about George Washington.

Oh, if only I could claim it was all a ploy by Calendar editors to gauge readership. But when I wrote in Saturday's story about HBO that George Washington stepped down from the presidency after serving only one term, it was just a stupid, blind error, the sort that leaves you smiting your forehead, literally and repeatedly, the moment it is pointed out to you.

[Snip] ... we entertainment writers are held just as accountable for flubbed historical references as any other journalist. The correction runs today online and in tomorrow's print edition, and I will try to comfort myself with the knowledge that a good, strong dose of humility is always good for the soul. Especially the soul of a critic.

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