Jayson Blair's fabrication of "news" stories for the New York Times
has made life more difficult for journalists and commentators who make honest
mistakes. More than ever, error is assumed to be dishonesty when, in fact,
it is an unavoidable part of being human. I know because there was an error
in my last Foxnews.com column and I intend to be as non-Blair as possible
in dealing with it.
The error? In an analysis of HR 1298 — a $15 billion bill to combat HIV/AIDS,
mostly in Africa — I misinterpreted the phrase "widow inheritance." The mistake
slandered no one and deletion of the relevant paragraph didn't affect the
column's line of argument. But my analysis was flat wrong.
There is nothing shameful in being mistaken, as long as the error is not
deliberate, denied or a common occurrence. The key is to acknowledge a blunder
and correct it. Yet, in our politically correct and contentious society,
people are loath to admit to error. This is particularly true of those who
question the current politics of gender or race because defaming the character
of dissenters is standard procedure for many feminists and liberals.
The viciousness that now passes for public discourse compounds the common
fear most people have of being wrong, especially in a public situation. That
fear is intimately connected with the desire not to appear ridiculous or
inadequate. Yet error in all its forms — from misstatements to imprudent
acts — can and should serve a healthy role in personal development. Mistakes
are reality's feedback ... but you've got to listen.
As a society, we badly need a levelheaded approach to error in its various
forms — three of the most common of which are errors of fact, errors of circumstance
and errors of approach.
Errors of fact are simple misstatements, like 2 + 2 = 3 or the claim that Charles Dickens wrote Moby Dick.
Such errors are inescapable — everyone makes one sooner or later — and they
don't mean a great deal as long as you correct them and proceed with increased
Errors of circumstance are "reasonable" mistakes that occur due to the context
of your knowledge and do not reflect a lack of care on your part. For example,
several centuries ago if you stated "the earth is flat," you would be wrong
but reasonably so because that was the common belief.
This applies to actions as well. For example, if you are suddenly fired the
day after you buy on a much-needed new car, then buying the car may turn
out to be a mistake. Nevertheless, you acted appropriately by basing the
purchase on circumstances you had no reason to believe would change.
Nevertheless, even in these cases, a dose of reality can be a learning experience.
The flat-earther might begin to question other of his surrounding assumptions;
the car buyer might realize that financial planning should include the possibility
of circumstances changing.
Errors of approach do not involve specific mistakes but refer instead to
faulty methods of approaching ideas or facts. Perhaps you've developed the
habit of never backing down from a statement even when you realize you're
wrong. Or you sort through data in order to verify a foregone conclusion
rather than to assess what it is telling you. Or you automatically launch
into a personal attack of those with whom you disagree rather than dealing
with the facts and arguments.
An error of approach is the most significant type of mistake you can make
because it is neither reasonable nor open to correction. Instead it acts
as barrier both to real-world feedback and to clear thinking.
Errors of fact can easily become errors of approach, usually through a fear
of intellectual embarrassment. Through this process, people take a comparatively
minor incident — a simple misstatement — and convert it into a habit that
blocks their ability to reason and destroys their credibility. The habit
also precludes the possibility of learning from error.
All of us make useful errors every day. For example, every time you date
someone who is wrong for you, you move a step closer to knowing the sort
of partner who is right for your life. But there is a catch — or, rather,
there are two of them. 1) You have to take responsibility for your error.
You can't ignore it, blame others, curse fate or the myriad other methods
of hiding from error. 2) You can't constantly berate yourself for the error
or live in fear of repeating it. If you do so, you strip the mistake of any
usefulness and turn it into an emotional problem.
I'm taking my own advice. The "widow inheritance" remark in my last column
was a blunder that teaches me to use more care in the future. I could guarantee
that it would the last blunder I'll ever make but, then, I'd be doing something
much worse than erring. I'd be telling a lie.
Unfortunately, when the New York Times ignored Jayson Blair's years
of deceit — and, in fact, rewarded him through promotion — it blurred the
line between errors and lies in journalism.
That line needs to be redrawn. Not only for the sake of every writer and
news agency with a commitment to truth, but also out of respect for the ultimate
victim of dishonest journalism: the reader.
Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com and a research
fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author
and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, Liberty for
Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century (Ivan R. Dee/Independent
Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada. Reprinted with permission of ifeminists.com.
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