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Politico Magazine contributor writes apology for his story — in The Week [Updated]

Publications have more difficulty than ever in suppressing corrections and retractions. The Internet — especially Twitter — has a way of shaming journalists who refuse to make things right. Oftentimes those editors and reporters hunker down and wait for people to get mad about something else.

The form of accountability propagated today by Marc Ambinder breaks all the norms, however: Ambinder wrote an apology for an overzealous story he’d written in Politico Magazine. A separate, standalone, unequivocal apology. Except it didn’t run in Politico Magazine; instead, it ran in The Week, apparently after Politico Magazine declined to publish it.

The headline is forceful: “How I unfairly maligned two Secret Service agents in POLITICO Magazine.”

The topic here is the March 4 incident in which two Secret Service officials went to a party for a departing colleague and caused commotion upon returning to a checkpoint in a government car at the White House perimeter. The Post, which broke the story, initially carried a headline referencing a “car accident,” though it scrubbed that formulation within minutes. It reported that the agents were under investigation for allegedly drinking.*

In his Politico Magazine piece, Ambinder distilled the wave of coverage stemming from The Post’s report into this summation:

This latest incident — where two high ranking Secret Service agents, while drunk, allegedly drove themselves into a crash barrier at the White House, disrupting a tense investigation into a suspicious package nearby — is heartbreaking.

Though The Post had reported that the Secret Service agents were being investigated for drinking [see correction], there is no evidence that they were drunk at the time they arrived at the checkpoint. In The Week, Ambinder raps himself for his description of events: “Notice where I put the adverb ‘allegedly,’ ” he writes, in a clear statement that he went overboard in describing the agents as drunk. “I’m embarrassed I wrote that sentence. I further suggested that the incident smacks of the behavior of ‘high functioning alcoholics.’ I had no right to say that, at all. (POLITICO Magazine stands by the piece and doesn’t think an apology is necessary — but I think I was wrong.)”

Here’s the concluding line of the story: “So: Mark Connolly and George Ogilvie, I’m sorry for what I wrote.”

In an interview with the Erik Wemple Blog, Ambinder, who is also a contributing editor for the Atlantic, a contributing editor for GQ and a senior contributor to Defense One, said that he tried to place the apology story in Politico Magazine. The magazine apparently didn’t want it. (Politico Magazine Editor Garrett M. Graff declined to comment on talks with Ambinder.) The way media outlets normally handle these situations, says Ambinder, doesn’t wipe away original reportorial sins: “Corrections generally are either appended or live in some other universe that nobody really recognizes because the narrative … is already out there. This was the most that I could do.”

No one was pressuring Ambinder to correct the record or apologize, he says. Looking back at the whole drama, he says: “On the one hand, this piece is the worst type of media navel-gazing which makes people gnash their teeth about the media. On the other hand, Jon Stewart and other people who’ve criticized the reporting of this story are absolutely right: We in the media have this sometimes shortcut of piling on and then really having no vectors for accountability afterwards.”

Though Ambinder writes in his story that Politico Magazine was standing by his original version, the magazine’s story now includes an italicized parenthetical that reads:

(Update and clarification: Further reporting by other news organizations, including by the Washington Post, which originally published news of the White House incident, has clarified that the March 4 incident was “milder” than originally reported and involved only an orange construction barrel, not an actual crash barrier. The original Post reports also appear to have overplayed the disruption to the nearby suspicious package investigation.)

We read those words to Ambinder and asked him whether he’d realized his story had been updated. “No, I didn’t,” he responded. Such embedded clarifications, noted Ambinder, don’t gain the Google-search altitude of a fresh story, but he still called it “the right thing to do.”

Asked about this incident, Graff pointed to the clarification. “We, in fact, did add a clarification in the text of Ambinder’s piece, since the Washington Post’s reporting on the underlying incident has changed in the days since the piece,” he writes in an e-mail.

Politico Magazine-Secret Service history buffs may recall an incident last fall, when investigative reporter Ronald Kessler suggested something really weird with these lines: “Agents tell me it’s a miracle an assassination hasn’t already occurred. Sadly, given Obama’s colossal lack of management judgment, that calamity may be the only catalyst that will reform the Secret Service.” After a backlash on social media, Politico Magazine blamed readers:

Editor’s note: Some readers have misinterpreted the original last line of Kessler’s article as somehow suggesting that the president should be held responsible in the event of his own assassination. That couldn’t be further from the truth, and we’re sorry if anyone interpreted Kessler’s meaning in any other way.

Updated (3:15 pm.): Correction: This post initially reported that The Post had reported the agents had been drinking. In fact, it reported that the agents were being investigated for allegedly drinking.