We all make mistakes, right? And when we do, we have several options: we can hope no one notices; try and fix it before anyone notices; or apologize, and do our best to make it right.
When you're a journalist, the stakes are higher. All we have is our credibility. If we make an error on-air, or on a page, it's out there for the world to see. We have to correct it, or our reputation (personally, and that of our organization) suffers.
I've certainly made mistakes. One memorable gaffe occurred at my first on-air job in Columbia, S.C. — I was filling in for the anchorman, and someone called our newsroom minutes before the 6:00 hour, to report that a local radio personality had been killed in a car crash. I told the producer about it, and instead of calling the hospital (or anyone else) to check, she told me to "go with it." So I did.
Minutes later, the DJ called to tell us he was, in fact, alive. There was no accident. We were the victims of a cruel joke.
On Sunday, The New York Times admitted it made a mistake. Actually, there were multiple "corrections" on page A2, including a pet food recall that was not expanded, and providing the right telephone number for a cabaret that was reviewed.
But the biggest correction, under the heading "Editor's Note," wasn't your garden variety misprint.
The Times admitted it distributed an article in the March 18 edition of its Sunday Magazine, while knowing the story contained some glaring inaccuracies. The article was about women who served in Iraq, the sexual abuse some say they endured, and their struggles in reclaiming their pre-war lives. But one of the women profiled, who said she'd been raped twice and suffered brain damage when a roadside bomb exploded next to her Humvee, was never actually IN Iraq. She lied. And, there was no roadside bomb. Readers were left to wonder if there'd been any sexual assaults.
The newspaper knew about the mistakes on March 12, six days before the magazine was distributed, and 13 days before it published the correction. The magazine was printed on March 9 — three days before the lies were discovered — but there was still plenty of time to reprint it. The cost might've been huge, but wouldn't it be worth it for a paper whose masthead proclaims "All the News That's Fit to Print?"
If the cost was prohibitive, why not run a correction the same day the magazine appeared? Why not let readers know that the newspaper had discovered one of the women profiled in the article lied to them? They did the best they could in confirming her story, found out too late for the printers, but in time for readers to know the truth. Why wait another week?
We asked The Times these questions, but they haven't given us any answers.
Their "Editor's Note" explains the woman in question, Amorita Randall, "... did not serve in Iraq, but may have become convinced she did." It also says, "If The Times had learned these facts before publication, it would not have included Ms. Randall in the article."
If this were true, why not set the record straight in a more timely fashion?
Viewers would certainly demand the same of us.
* After my story aired, I received a call from one of the other women quoted in the article. "Ann" wanted to be sure people know sex abuse exists in the military, and plenty of servicewomen are suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Military Sexual Trauma (MST). She also says the military has some excellent programs to help women (and men) deal with these kinds of issues, and says the treatment has helped her and many others. She suggests contacting the Veteran's Administration, and/or the National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Rick Leventhal has been a New York-based correspondent with the FOX News Channel since June 1997. You can read his bio here.