The Post used uncharacteristically strong language in correcting an error-filled blog post published Tuesday, which mistakenly reported that Mitt Romney was using in speeches the phrase “Keep America American,” which was once used by the Ku Klux Klan.
Here’s the correction in full, in the form of an editors’ note:
Editors’ note: This posting contains multiple, serious factual errors that undermine its premise. Mitt Romney is not using “Keep America American,” which was once a KKK slogan, as a catchphrase in stump speeches, as the posting and headline stated. In a YouTube video that the posting said showed Romney using the phrase, Romney actually used a different phrase, “Keep America America.” Further, the video that the blog posting labelled “Mitt Romney 2012 Campaign Ad” is not actually a Romney campaign ad. The video itself states “Mitt Romney does not actually support this ad.” The posting cited accounts of Romney saying “keep America American” at an appearance last week. Independent video from the event shows him saying “Keep America America.” The Post should have contacted the Romney campaign for comment before publication. Finally, we apologize that the posting began by saying “[s]omeone didn’t do his research” when, in fact, we had not done ours.
According to Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli, “We believe in being excessively contrite when The Post falls short of its own standards.”
Here’s what happened, as best as I can piece together. Reporter Elizabeth Flock writes many of the postings on blogPost, which is self-described as “The Washington Post’s sounding board for news and conversation that’s reverberating online.” The Post uses blogPost to do quick breaking news, and to weigh in on stories that are popular across the Internet. The writers for this blog work fast and sprinkle their postings with many links to other news sites and blogs.
On Tuesday, making the rounds of the Internet was a report by John Aravosis of the left-leaning Americablog that Romney was using the phrase in his speeches. Aravosis linked to a video, in which it was hard to make out whether Romney said “Keep America America” or “Keep America American.”
At any rate, Flock wrote a posting that mentioned other campaign phrases that, over the years, were borrowed from earlier campaigns. The problem was that she didn’t call the Romney campaign to get its input. She only quoted a Huffington Post story in which the writer said that the Romney campaign wasn’t commenting.
“It is not The Post’s standard not to call for a comment,” Brauchli said.
Flock’s posting was edited and then published Wednesday afternoon at 3:20 p.m. According to Brauchli, a second editor saw the posting about 15 minutes after that and told Flock to contact Romney’s campaign for comment and then update the posting.
Flock e-mailed the campaign, but the response, which took less than an hour, got caught in The Post’s spam filter, because The Post sets its filters to exclude most e-mails that come from campaign Web sites. Reporters generally get direct e-mails from campaign officials that are separate from the campaign Web domain names.
So the response from Romney’s campaign didn’t get read until Thursday, after which the editors’ note was written.
“We had a reporter failure and we had an editor failure,” Brauchli said.
MSNBC also did a similar story, and the network’s Chris Matthews delivered an on-the-air apology.
The errors here are pretty obvious. You remember that old saw that police and parents used to scare us when we were in high school driver education: “Speed kills.” Well, when reporting, too much speed can kill a publication’s reputation for even-handedness and fact-checking. Reporters love to be first and hate to be last, but accuracy and fairness must always triumph over speed.
Another problem here is that too many reporters see the computer as their main tool of the trade. I’m old-fashioned, and I think the telephone is still the first tool of the trade if you can’t do a personal interview. Fine to use the Internet for some basic research, or in a pinch to e-mail a source for a comment, but it’s faster and often better to call. You get more nuance, more spontaneity, and you usually get a real human being to answer a question. E-mail is too easily ignored; a person on the phone is harder to put off.
And finally, there was an error of judgment. Many stories The Post writes can affect a person’s reputation. Any reporter doing a story that questions a person’s reputation in a direct and public way, such as accusing Mitt Romney of using a KKK slogan, should stop and consider whether, first of all, does that make sense, knowing what you know about the person. If it seems counterintuitive, then you should be extremely sure of your facts, every fact, and that you have appropriate response from the party affected.
I mean, really, Mitt Romney may be many things, but has anyone, anywhere, accused him of being a KKK sympathizer, racist, or anything similar? I don’t think so.