Patterico's Pontifications

3/22/2012

The Correct Way to Fix Mistakes . . . and the Incorrect Way

Filed under: General — Patterico @ 5:58 pm

Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone. But people carefully watch how you handle mistakes.

The right way to do it is to quickly, forthrightly, and thoroughly admit error — to move to correct the error, apologize, and explain how it happened.

The wrong way is to pretend it never happened, and to lawyer it up.

Recently, two outlets screwed up stories in a colossal way. One, PRI’s “This American Life,” handled the situation properly. The other, Breitbart.com (I am sad to say) did not.

Let’s start with “This American Life.” A few weeks ago, the program broadcast a portion of a theater presentation by a man named Mike Daisey, who had claimed to observe poor working conditions at manufacturing plants in China assembling Apple products. The show’s producers checked to ensure that the conditions Daisey had described — suicides, crippling repetitive motion injuries, employment of young teens, and the like — were actually occurring at these plants. That’s not the part they got wrong; such conditions do occur. What didn’t occur is Daisey’s observation of them.

Daisey had told the show’s producers that he had given a phony name for his translator, who had a prominent role in the story, because he wanted to protect her. He claimed to have no way to contact her. A reporter from another public radio show Googled the translator’s first name and location and easily found the translator, who disputed much of Daisey’s account. When confronted with this, Daisey admitted that he had lied about several aspects, and sounded mighty dodgy even about the parts that he was standing by.

Producer Ira Glass forthrightly admitted that he should have killed the story when Daisey could not provide contact information for the translator. Glass detailed the efforts that had been made to corroborate the story, where the show had failed, and what the true state of affairs in China is. This American Life devoted an entire hour to the retraction, took full responsibility, and generally made its fans (and I am one) feel that, while they screwed up, they could trust in the integrity of the show. No cover-ups here.

Such was not the case at another favorite outlet of mine, Breitbart.com, which recently had a disastrous post in which ambush interviewer Jason Mattera went after Bono with respect to certain financial dealings. Mattera confronted Bono, who incredibly denied having anything to do with his company’s business, or indeed even with U2. Bono looked evasive and surprisingly casual as he repeatedly issued denials: “I didn’t do that.”

The reason was: it wasn’t Bono. It was a Bono impersonator.

Whoops.

OK, look. These things happen. Breitbart.com was not the only one fooled. The night the story was published, I saw the story linked at the Blaze, for example. Everyone is fallible.

What I don’t like is the way it was handled. The post was simply removed without explanation, and editor Joel Pollak, instead of admitting error, went into lawyer mode:

“We went through a vetting process on this and appropriate questions were raised and appropriate answers were given,” Breitbart.com editor Joel Pollack assured us this afternoon by phone. “But the videographer then asked us to take it down, so we did.” But Pollak said he would “neither confirm nor deny” that mistaken identity was the reason for the scrubbing.

“Neither confirm nor deny”? Mattera has admitted that he got taken by a Bono impersonator.

I’ve met and spoken with Joel Pollak, and he seems like a smart man, and I’m sure he has the best interests of Breitbart.com at heart. But this is not how you handle it when you make a mistake. You gotta say: hey, we screwed up. At matters stand now, the biggest mistake in this affair was made, not by Mattera or his editor, but by Pollak.

I hate to say something like this, but sometimes you have to administer a little tough medicine to people who are on your side, for the greater good. In the Internet world, reputation is everything, and admitting mistakes in a cheerful and forthright manner is critical. With Andrew Breitbart gone, the people running the show need to learn that lesson fast, or they risk squandering the reputation for integrity that Andrew worked hard to build.

35 Responses to “The Correct Way to Fix Mistakes . . . and the Incorrect Way”

  1. I wish I had watched the video. I knew all this about U2 and just read the transcript.

    Noodles (3681c4)

  2. It’s still up in places.

    Patterico (feda6b)

  3. I agree. Whether in our personal lives or public lives, owning up to it honestly and directly from the get-go is *always* the best policy.

    Otherwise, you might as well be a politician.

    Dana (4eca6e)

  4. Bono is a nice person I think. He’s not really on my let’s go after him and hunt him down like a rabid pig list.

    happyfeet (3c92a1)

  5. The former sounds like Stephen Glass, the second was a simple mistake,

    narciso (35ae48)

  6. Also, I was totally and completely taken in by Mike Daisey. It was a heart-wrenching and eloquently told story. This American Life is one thing that NPR does extremely well and is almost always worth the listen, so I’m happy to see them take ownership.

    Dana (4eca6e)

  7. “I can neither confirm or deny…”
    Sounds weaselly.
    Just say the impersonator did a great impersonation and that it all went sideways from there and you apologize and want to set the record straight.
    Laugh at yourself.
    Who hasn’t been fooled?

    SteveG (e27d71)

  8. The former sounds like Stephen Glass, the second was a simple mistake,

    True enough, but it’s not the mistakes I’m focusing on. It’s the response. And TAL did far better on that front.

    Patterico (feda6b)

  9. I agree with this post and I bet it wasn’t easy to write, given recent events.

    Pollak is a rising star and I’m really impressed with him. But a removal of a story requires an explanation. I actually find a good honest explanation of error to make a publication look much more reputable than the too rare and too quibbly LA Times type of corrections.

    Dustin (330eed)

  10. Admitting mistakes seems to be more honorable. If I ever make one, I may try that.

    JD (7ac662)

  11. Really, we’re going by New York Magazine’s accounts, which still hasn’t admitted that they were lied to by Wallace and Schmidt, nearly four years later.

    narciso (35ae48)

  12. Really, we’re going by New York Magazine’s accounts

    But some kind of explanation is needed. Even if they don’t know x,y,z for sure, or if their view is not the same as someone else’s, the point is they need to show that they got one wrong.

    Dustin (330eed)

  13. Yes, they’ll render an explanation, in due time,
    add to that Gabe Sherman’s apochryphal comments, their apologia for the GZ Mosque landlord, pretty
    much anything Frank Rich writes,

    narciso (35ae48)

  14. I fell for Bono’s schtick before. He talked about how great the idea of America was, how much he admires us, etc. etc.

    Then I heard him admit later this was the language he used to butter us up and take our money for his causes, which he himself doesn’t like paying for (ie being taxed for).

    Noodles (3681c4)

  15. . In the Internet world, reputation is everything

    Absolutely. Frankly, I’m surprised and disappointed to see Pollack’s response over something so simple. Own it. Not only is reputation everything, but now they’ve given the opposition opportunity. The point is to show that we don’t just say we are different but we actually live that difference, and that we don’t sink to the levels of our opponents because we are guided by conscience and moral standards and ethics.

    I think they need to come clean sooner rather than later – and before the left grabs hold of this and doesn’t let go.

    Dana (4eca6e)

  16. Now this is convenient, Pollak has footnoted every syllabi, interview, article, re Obama’s vetting,
    and the correcting the record that New York, Time, Newsweek, the Washington Post has refused to do,
    and then this comes up,

    narciso (35ae48)

  17. What’s convenient about it?

    I have supported the site’s stories on Bell. It was original journalism, and I don’t think every site has to act like the GOP front-runner’s strategist.

    Patterico (feda6b)

  18. True, Narciso. Breitart.com’s vetting of the president is the job the MSM refused to do. It’s painted a big fat target on the real journalists who have to be on the ball about everything. And inevitably, stuff is going to come up.

    How much stuff? If they leave any plausible room to spin away any story, it’ll happen. Even if they don’t, the likes of Soledad O’Brien will just make stuff up. And if they make an error?

    Dustin (330eed)

  19. I guess I read narciso’s comment differently.

    Dustin (330eed)

  20. Why didn’t this Sfera cat, just say I’m not him.

    narciso (35ae48)

  21. There’s a story now, on Al Gore’s internets, about the way some folks at The Oregonian tried to hide and fudge the odious circumstances of the death of one of their editors.

    nk (dec503)

  22. Does he ever correct the record, or does it matter;

    http://dailycaller.com/2011/09/15/should-erik-wemple-be-attacking-sarah-palin/

    narciso (35ae48)

  23. wikipedia says Mr. Bono owns 1.5% of popular “social media” website facebook

    happyfeet (3c92a1)

  24. I agree with this post and associate myself with the sentiments contained therein. In the past, when I’ve misjudged how to make a correction, I’ve had friends who’ve given me useful and constructive nudges toward where I’d always wanted to be anyway, if I’d been thinking more clearly. I interpret this post as being so intended, and I hope and trust that Mr. Pollak et al. will accept it as such.

    Beldar (f9f436)

  25. I interpret this post as being so intended, and I hope and trust that Mr. Pollak et al. will accept it as such.

    I hope so too.

    Patterico (feda6b)

  26. Bono is the usual complete hypocrite when it comes to charity as his own organisation “One” has shown in the past.

    BEST BONO STORY EVER.
    At concerts he likes to stop between songs and then very slowly do one hand clap followed by others at similar long intervals. He then says “Every time I clap my hands, a child in Africa dies…”
    One wag in the crowd shouted out, “Then stop doing it!”

    Gazzer (bfe961)

  27. Integrity. Patterico. It’s why I keep coming back….

    Tru (14b39f)

  28. 26- whenever I here his name, thats what I think of. Over rated,self promoting, socialist pig, are my other thoughts on bono.

    sickofrinos (44de53)

  29. #9,Comment by Dustin — 3/22/2012 @ 6:19 pm

    Well said Sir. Class.

    Machinist (b6f7da)

  30. Patterico,
    Your conduct and ethics on this site have established the standard by which I judge other sites. I think it shows in the way many of your regular commenters conduct themselves.

    Machinist (b6f7da)

  31. I see Lee Stranahan is writing on the Bigs now. Guess that explains your need to do some busting on them.

    john b (d76666)

  32. That was kind of douchey, John b.

    JD (318f81)

  33. Classy post, well written, a lesson for all sides.

    As they say in Facebookland, “like”.

    Kman (5576bf)

  34. I’ve been writing on the Bigs for well over a year; prior to the time I wrote here.

    Also, I respect and like Patrick a lot. He’s the person who introduced me to Andrew. Not sure where you’re going with your innuendo.

    Lee Stranahan (708cc3)

  35. I interpret this post as being so intended, and I hope and trust that Mr. Pollak et al. will accept it as such.

    I hope so too.

    Considering my own opinion of Joel, I’m going to suggest you not hold your breath.

    And Lee, John b is suggesting that, instead of speaking from a place of integrity and honest criticism, Pat’s only reason from calling Joel on his feckless “retraction” is because you write for the Bigs, as an extension to the bad blood that to some extent existed between you and Pat.

    Because we all know that it is forbidden to disagree, unless you have a dark motive.

    Scott Jacobs (ba5cb9)


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