Thursday, December 6, 2018

Facing Up to Mistakes

Have you ever made a mistake at work? Perhaps you are an accountant and you put an extra zero at the end of a number or placed a decimal point one column to the right. Or maybe you are an attorney and failed to file a motion in a timely manner. Or you are a shipping clerk who sent a package to London, England, instead of London, Ontario (that last one is a homage to All in the Family and the reason Archie Bunker did not get a Christmas bonus one year and thus could not buy Edith the vacuum cleaner she desired). 

The point is, people make mistakes, and so do computers if they are programmed incorrectly by humans, of course. No matter how many levels of review an organization has, human error cannot be totally eliminated. 

Try talking out loud for several straight hours a day without fumbling your words. Naturally, you will mispronounce some words. But when I refer to fumbling I mean something far more sinister, far more detrimental, to your societal position and ambition. 

In the age of instant mass communication any gaffe, any untoward remark, may be blown up out of proportion to your intent. The tragedy, the threat to our civil and political comity, and potentially our democracy, is that it usually is. 

Did Hillary’s “basket of deplorables” comment cost her the election? Didn’t help. Howard Dean’s outburst of enthusiasm after the Iowa caucus in 2004 surely blew up his presidential hopes. In 2006, George Allen got caught on a cell phone camera calling one of his opponent’s campaign trackers a “macaca” (monkey). It submarined his re-election bid as a U.S. senator from Virginia. 

Which brings us to a recent brouhaha over an erroneous news report. I classify it as a “brouhaha” not to discount the culpability of the media, in this case, NPR, but rather because when journalists make mistakes they are held to a higher standard than politicians who regularly and deliberatively lie. 

NPR screwed up in a report linking Trump ex-attorney Michael Cohen’s plea deal confession to testimony Donald Trump Jr. provided to the Senate in 2017. NPR alleged Trump lied to the Senate about the family’s business plans in Russia. NPR issued a correction shortly thereafter.

But admitting its mistake did not stop right wing journalists and Web sites from excoriating NPR. Indeed, a Google check of “NPR Donald Trump Jr.” finds that the top sites covering this faux pas were Sputnik News, The Daily Wire, The Daily Caller, Breitbart,, National Review and The Federalist. It is a conservative onslaught when the most objective site I could cite was Fox News.

Only Trump Sr. seems immune from fallout from vocal flatulence. Indeed, his base laps up his lies and libertine lewdness. Of course, foreign governments and independent entities such as the stock market are not necessarily impassive to Trump’s discordant trumpet. Here’s an article from The Washington Post highlighting the chaos from Trump’s erraticism:

The PC police long ago lost the war with Trump. But the PC police remain vigilantly active when it comes to Trump’s detractors. Eric Holder and Hillary Clinton are held to a higher standard. As is The New York Times. 

Back in September The Times published an erroneous report that U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley had spent lavishly on draperies for her official residence in a high rise building near the U.N. The Times apologized for the error and issued a correction stating it was the Obama administration that authorized the purchase. 

In no other profession are mistakes as publicly acknowledged as they are in legitimate journalism. 

I made my fair share of mistakes as a reporter and editor. My most egregious mistake was not one of fact but of judgment. After a particularly negative experience trying to buy an electric snow shovel at a now defunct local home center chain, I avenged my treatment by recounting the details in the editor’s column of the next issue of Chain Store Age. I not only named the chain but also the store manager. I overstepped the bounds of civil criticism. In the next issue I apologized.

My most amusing mistake was printed on the cover of a December 1992 issue profiling retail industry entrepreneurs of the year. Chain Store Age partnered with Ernst & Young as part of the latter’s national all-industry program to recognize corporate leaders.

From the 29 retailers selected as winners that year, we chose to put Randy Acton, president of U.S. Cavalry, on the cover. U.S. Cavalry, now part of Galls LLC, sold military and law enforcement apparel and accessories. 

For the cover shoot Acton dressed in a military camouflage outfit, helmet and all. The headline read, “Soldier of Fortune,” under which we printed, “Randy Acton, president U.S. Calvary.”

Did you catch the mistake? I didn’t, until I received a thank you note from Randy. He gently pointed out his company was U.S. Cavalry, not U.S. Calvary.

Jesus, what a mistake that was!