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.
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.