The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
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by Jesse Walker

Thursday, September 04, 2003
A THIRD OF A CENTURY, A LITANY OF MISTAKES: Today I finally matched one of the achievements of Jesus: I lived to be 33. If you're interested in marking the occasion by crucifying me, you have good cause: As Hit & Run readers know, Romesh Ponnuru of National Review has just caught me in a
stupid mistake. To make a long story short, when I wrote an article on moral panics and terrorism two years ago, I

1. read a piece claiming that the Patriot Act expands the definition of terrorism to include computer hacking.

2. checked the text of the Patriot Act and, sure enough, found language about perfectly non-lethal sorts of hacking, lodged under the header "cyberterrorism."

3. did not stop to consider that, while this indicated that my original source was not lying, it did not demonstrate that she knew what she was talking about. Turns out that much of that language was already on the books. It would be more accurate to say the act expanded the definition of hacking, along with the government's ability to surveil and prosecute hackers.

We all make mistakes, but it's especially unpleasant to make them in print. It's doubly annoying when the error is something you actually checked: There's sloppiness and there's diligence, but what are we to make of sloppy diligence?

The same thing happened a few years ago when, writing a short item about the sanctions against Iraq, I repeated a common mischaracterization of UNICEF's study of the issue -- that it "reports that the embargo has killed about half a million Iraqi children under the age of 5." In that case I had read several sources that misunderstood what UNICEF had said, dug up the UNICEF report, found a reference to half a million dead Iraqi kids, and not noticed that I had confirmed only the raw number, not the significance my informants had attached to it. (In fact, as Matt Welch later noted in "The Politics of Dead Children," the study did not intend to attribute all 500,000 deaths to the sanctions.) Later I repeated the same mistake in a humor piece for the L.A. Weekly -- when it came time to stick in the dead-babies statistic, I just dug up my older article and repeated the faulty figure from there.

Whoa -- is it error-confession time? OK, bring them on:

1. Earlier this year, as longtime blog-readers know, I made a careless misstatement in an newspaper op-ed.

2. Back in 2000, in a Reason piece called "Intolerant Alliance," I described Abingdon Press as a "religious right outfit." A letter to the editor informed me that I was wrong, in time for us to amend the online version but not in time for our print readers.

3. In 1999, in a feature for Reason on the future of radio, I mentioned in passing that the state of Michigan had called on the FCC to legalize low-power broadcasting. In fact, the resolution had passed the appropriate committee but the legislature itself never got a chance to vote on it. I was the victim of a sloppily written press release -- but that's no excuse, really; I should have picked up the phone and confirmed the story.

4. In 1998, the Alternative Press Review published a piece I'd written about the civil war raging within the Pacifica radio network. A year later, when I was incorporating parts of it into my book Rebels on the Air, I noticed a minor chronological error. I no longer remember what this mistake was -- just that it's there in the article and it isn't there in the book. (The APR report also appeared about a year after I'd written it, but I never got a chance to review the galleys before it finally went to press. As a result, it contained some statements that were grossly out of date. But that's not really my fault.)

5. In 1997, covering radio for The Seattle Scroll, I made two dumb mistakes in the same article: I mixed up two Seattle pirate stations that had similar names, and I mixed up two Colorado public stations that the same person had worked for. Making matters worse, my editor added a few mistakes of his own after the manuscript left my hands, including a reference to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting as the "Center" for Public Broadcasting.

That's the worst sort of error, isn't it? Yes, everyone makes mistakes; but why should someone else's mistep turn up under your byline?

It isn't just editors who can trip you up. A few years back, I co-wrote a piece about recycling for The American Enterprise. My collaborator was Pierre Desrochers, a very bright guy who'd done some really interesting scholarship in the area. There was just one problem: French was his first language, and he wasn't entirely comfortable with the nuances of English. And so when he was researching the piece, he didn't realize that one of the articles he was drawing on -- a piece I never saw -- was (cough) an April Fool's gag.

And so, in libraries across the nation and on the World Wide Web, there exists an article with my name on it that claims this: "The German paleontologist Oscar Todkopf has unearthed several 50,000-year-old musical instruments made from dead animals, from a mastodon tusk dotted with 16 carefully aligned holes (thus suggesting that Neanderthals used an octave scale) to an item that resembles a bagpipe. The 'bag' part disintegrated long ago, but it left a protein stain on the rock where it was found; it was probably fashioned from a large beast's bladder."

Can I really blame Pierre for that, though? I wanted it to be true. As the old saw goes, some stories are just too good to check.

posted by Jesse 2:24 PM
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