Correction as Weapon: Self-Inflicted Wounds

Was this week’s most profane correction targeted at a news site, or its subject?

Can you tell what’s going on in this 2001 correction/apology published by the Ottawa Citizen?

The Ottawa Citizen and Southam News wish to apologize for our apology to Mark Steyn, published Oct. 22. In correcting the incorrect statements about Mr. Steyn published Oct. 15, we incorrectly published the incorrect correction. We accept and regret that our initial regrets were unacceptable and we apologize to Mr. Steyn for any distress caused by our previous apology.

I feel the offering deserves consideration as one of the top ten corrections of all time. Admittedly, though, it belongs at the bottom end of the list, due to the fact that it doesn’t actually tell you what the incorrect correction got wrong, or why the paper needed to apologize for its apology.

But that wasn’t the paper’s fault. Steyn played a major role in drafting the correction, and in the end it achieved exactly what he wanted. In a sense, the offended party was satisfied, even if readers were left chuckling and shaking their heads.

What was Steyn trying to achieve with the circular correction?

Speaking on a radio show after the correction appeared, he said he “dictated this apology, more or less, off the top of my head. And [the editor] said to me, ‘You’re joking. We’re going to look like a bunch of idiots.’”

That was exactly the point—Steyn used the correction as a way to embarrass the paper in its own pages. He achieved its goal and then some when the correction was read out on the air by Jay Leno.

This is a rare form of correction. As I noted in a previous column, it’s far more common to see a news organization use a correction as weapon. It’s not often that someone manages to flip the barrel and get a shot off at the people who own the presses.

I thought of the Steyn correction after reading one published by Calbuzz this week:

In our Saturday post about the California Democratic Party’s ad attacking Meg Whitman but masquerading as an “issues ad,” we described the abrupt ending to our conversation with CDP Chairman John Burton. Through his spokesman, Burton on Monday complained that he had been misquoted. Burton says he didn’t say “Fuck you.” His actual words were, “Go fuck yourself.” Calbuzz regrets the error.

I wondered if Burton had sought the correction as a way of sticking it to the site. So I emailed Phil Trounstine, one of the owners and editors of Calbuzz. First off, he explained, “It’s well known in California political circles that John Burton has a ferociously foul mouth.”

And it seems Burton’s proud of it to the point of wanting to needle Calbuzz about its apparent misquote. But whether Burton was actually trying to execute a Steynian Slapdown is debatable. Here’s how Trounstine described the chain of events:

After our original story was posted on Saturday, I asked Tenoch Flores, spokesman for the California Democratic Party, to make sure that Chairman Burton saw the post. Flores called me back on Monday to say Burton had seen the post and had only one comment: that he was misquoted. Flores was a bit embarrassed, but he conveyed Burton’s message. He said Burton claimed his words had been “Go fuck yourself,” not “fuck you.”

In the end, Trounstine feels the correction hurts Burton more than it mocks his site.

“Neither Flores nor Burton was asking for a correction—just offering feedback,” he wrote. “I think Flores would have been happier if we had just let the item fade away. But we were delighted to set the record straight.”

Correction of the Week

In a Commentary page column Tuesday, the word “pro” was mistakenly removed from the first sentence of Eric Zorn’s column. The correct version of the sentence is: In 1995, Yale University law professor Stephen Carter wrote a pro-snooze-fest book titled “The Confirmation Mess” in which he supported the idea that U.S. Supreme Court nominees should be vague and elliptical when coming before the Senate for confirmation. The Tribune regrets the error. — Chicago Tribune

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Craig Silverman is the editor of and the author of Regret The Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech. He is also the editorial director of and a columnist for the Toronto Star.