The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why I wrote ‘fake news’ for The Washington Post

One of many banners carried during a Saturday rally on the 99th anniversary of Polish independence in Warsaw. (Adam Stepien/Agencja Gazeta/Reuters)

Dear @horsefish57,

You were right, and I was wrong.

No, I don't mean that my newspaper is trying to destroy “culture” through a campaign of “psychological terror,” as you wrote on Twitter. Nor do I think, as some other correspondents have complained, that I am a “master of #fakenews” or an exquisite propagandist.

I think if I were any sort of propagandist, even a halfway competent one, there would not be a big, fat correction notice above my recent article about a far-right march in Poland held last weekend. And I would not be writing this mea culpa.

But you and all the others are right about one thing and right to be upset about it. There was no “Pray for an Islamic Holocaust” banner at Saturday's march in Warsaw.

And yet I wrote that there was, in an article seen by hundreds of thousands of people.

That error was, as they say, “fake news.” That was my bad.

I write to you, @horsefish57, not to defend myself but merely to explain how a not-so-masterful Post reporter ended up adding to the world's already overflowing supply of false or erroneous reporting.

My hope is to persuade you, if you'll allow me, that I acted not out of malice or in some campaign of “anticulture” propaganda, but that I simply messed up, as did many that day.

Here goes.

Many things about Saturday's march through Warsaw are not in dispute.

As my colleague Rick Noack wrote in what I can only promise you is not an act of psychological warfare, the march is an annual event that has become one of the largest far-right marches in the world.

It draws people from other countries, and intersects with nationalist and anti-refugee sentiment spreading across Europe and the world — including in Poland's government.

An estimated 60,000 people showed up on Saturday — give or take a few thousands, as with all crowd estimates.

As you can clearly see in overhead shots, it was enormous.

Some, including ministers in the Polish government, have defended the march.

Unlike you, @horsefish57, who hopes it will hasten the collapse of liberal democracy, these people say the march was an innocuous parade of patriots and families — perhaps marred by an extreme sign or two.

But then there are the many, many photos of the banners.

“Death to Enemies of the Homeland,” in this particular set.

The anti-Islam theme is on the photo at the top of this article.

There certainly were dissenting viewpoints, and some in the crowd even protested “fascism.”

Here are videos of what happened to them. Not so family-friendly.

Even the president of Poland, breaking with right-leaning lawmakers, condemned displays of “sick nationalism” that marred his country's celebration of its independence. The annual march takes place on Poland's independence day.

So that was the march, more or less.

Now let's talk about the sign.

“Pray For Islamic Holocaust” really did appear on a banner — but it was reported to have been hung from a bridge in the Polish city of Poznan in 2015, not during Saturday's march in Warsaw, miles away.

Reports of the banner were resurrected in 2017 through a chain of compounding mistakes, in which I played no small part.

The Wall Street Journal mentioned the Holocaust banner in an article published Saturday, in a section about Poland's history of far-right politics.

But the Journal erroneously reported that the banner had been hung in Warsaw, not Poznan, and didn't mention in what year it went up.

Perhaps reading the article too quickly, others assumed the banner had been displayed during Saturday's march.

I didn't happen to read the Journal's article before I wrote my own article Sunday.

I did, however, read an article on CNN's website, with this line in it:

“Demonstrators carried banners that read 'White Europe, Europe must be white,' and 'Pray for an Islamic Holocaust.' ”

I assumed CNN's reporter had witnessed the banner; in turn, I wrote this regrettable passage in The Post:

Tens of thousands of people came from across Poland and beyond, and reporters documented their signs:

“Clean Blood,” as seen by Politico.

“Pray for an Islamic Holocaust,” per CNN.

“White Europe” streaked across another banner, the Associated Press reported. ...”

And that might have been the extent of my error — one phantasmal banner in a list of real ones — had I not also decided to write a headline around the thing.

That's how we ended up with this erroneous display:

And then the Internet does what it does.

The Post's Twitter feed filled up with people who were alternately horrified and delighted to believe that Polish marchers had called for a genocide of Muslims.

And the instant news cycle got to work.

My article was plastered across Google News. Another Post article cited my own and was thus infected by the “Islamic Holocaust” banner that hadn't actually been on display in Warsaw.

Where I had cited CNN, other news outlets cited me.

Eventually, “Pray for an Islamic Holocaust” had been replicated across the Atlantic Ocean, from Newsweek to the Independent in a vast web of wrongness.

I even wrote a second headline based around the quote, when I updated my original article on Monday, still not realizing the banner didn't exist.

It took a while for the tangle to start unwinding itself. Too long, in my opinion.

Yet another news cycle passed before I noticed that CNN had issued a correction to its article and removed the line I had quoted in my headline.

The Wall Street Journal also corrected itself and relocated the Holocaust banner back to Poznan; on Tuesday morning I finally wrote my own correction, and other corrections would follow in other stories down the chain. (The Post article that cited my error was also corrected, online and in print.)

And I know, this doesn't fix or excuse anything. Vastly more people read my erroneous article than saw the correction.

The misplaced “Islamic Holocaust” banner is still live on many websites. Like everything on the Internet, it will probably live forever, and so will my responsibility and justifiable anger at my role.

This writer, for example, wondered when The Washington Post will apologize to the nation of Poland.

I'm not going to apologize to all of Poland, as I don't think all of Poland by any means stands for “Death to Enemies of the Homeland” or “White Europe” or so many other real signs and slogans in a march that revolted so many people.

But I'll apologize to you, @horsefish57, and to anyone else reading for the “#fakenews” — and my part in a complicated mess.

More reading:

How Poland became a breeding ground for Europe’s far right

Poland defends massive far-right protest that called for a ‘White Europe’

Austria’s right-wing populism reflects anti-Muslim platform of Donald Trump

The far right in the 2014 European elections: Of earthquakes, cartels and designer fascists

How one man’s pause became a haunting symbol of Aleppo’s destruction