The Post’s Public Enemy Gaffe: Why Circle-The-Wagons is a Joke

    by Scott Rosenberg
    December 17, 2009

    A lot of virtual ink has already been spilled, by me and others, on the now-infamous Washington Post Public Enemy correction. (If you missed it, the Post ran a correction explaining that a story had “incorrectly said a Public Enemy song declared 9/11 a joke. The song refers to 911, the emergency phone number.” The correction went viral and inspired a flurry of Twitter responses mocking the paper with other misunderstood hip-hop song titles.)

    Before we move on, though, it’s worth recording what this incident reveals about the disconnect between newsroom traditions and contemporary reality. A post by the Washington Post ombudsman, Andrew Alexander, on Dec. 11 — more than two weeks after the error appeared, and a week after the correction was made — reveals what many knowledgeable readers had already guessed about the incident: the mistake wasn’t the fault of the story’s writer, who describes herself as someone weaned on hip hop; rather, it was introduced by a copy editor.

    Copy editors often save writers’ behinds, but they make mistakes, too. I bet everyone involved in this incident at the Post knew exactly what had happened within a few hours. What would the harm have been in immediately posting a brief item on a reporter’s blog, or the ombudsman’s blog, or appended to the story itself, saying something like, “Whoops! An overeager copy editor who didn’t grow up listening to Public Enemy changed ‘911’ to ’9/11’ in my story yesterday. We’ll try to do better next time.”


    This might not have inoculated the paper against the jokes on Twitter, but it would have better positioned it to accept the jibes in good spirit. As a commenter on a post I wrote on the topic suggested, the Post could even have compiled some of the tweets and published them as a followup.

    Instead, the Post followed the circle-the-wagons playbook more appropriate to a Watergate-level power struggle than a little pop-culture gaffe. It waited a week to post the correction, and it was the notice’s opacity and stiff tone, as much as the original error, that exposed the paper to ridicule.

    Outdated Policy

    “You want to be able to defend yourself and you can’t,” the story’s writer, Akeya Dickson, complained to the Post ombudsman. But the only thing gagging the writer was the Post’s antiquated rulebook.


    Alexander explained that the Post was following its own longstanding policy against finger-pointing in corrections: “We do not assign internal blame for a mistake, such as distinguishing between reporting and editing errors. Ours is a collective enterprise; we share responsibility for our successes, and for our errors.”

    Perhaps such a policy once made sense. Today it merely confirms the public’s belief that newsrooms are impenetrable black boxes, and journalistic enterprises are unaccountable to the public and oblivious to change. Readers understand that journalists are human; unless there’s imminent threat of a lawsuit, what’s the harm in explaining to your readers how an error got made?

    Need For More Collaboration

    There is, actually, one problem with such transparency. Admitting that errors are often introduced in the editing process is painful for newsroom traditionalists because it undermines one of the central defenses of professional big-media practices: the notion that layers of editing protocol invariably produce higher-quality journalism.

    In fact, the value of editing is inversely proportional to the skill and depth of knowledge of the reporter/writer. Yes, great journalists’ work will always benefit from the scrutiny of great editors; but the better the journalist, the less likely it is that she will find herself paired with an editor of her caliber. Too often, the writer is more knowledgeable than the editor, but the editor has final say.

    One remedy for such snafus is simply closer collaboration between reporters and the copy desk. In my decade in a daily newsroom, I never understood why this was frowned upon. As an arts critic, I often knew more about what I was covering than the smart generalists on the copy desk. But for the writer to review the edits to his own copy was viewed at best as needless overkill, and at worst as selfish meddling.

    Today, there’s no denying the value of better and more open communication at every stage of the journalistic process — between reporters and sources, writers and editors, newsrooms and the public. Any newsroom rule that gets in the way of that communication ought to be put out of its misery.

    Tagged: 9/11 accuracy corrections editorial standards washington post
    • What’s interesting about this whole story for me, perhaps particularly as a perpetually behind-the-scenes player in news publishing, is that papers neither cast blame nor offer much credit past the public facing byline, which, in turn, belies the sheer volume of labor that goes into putting a good paper together. Since no one ever openly credits the copy editors, it hardly seems fair to point fingers when they screw up.

      My instinct, like yours, is to go with the honest and clear (and personable) explanation. But the real problem isn’t that some old fuddy duddy of a copy editor didn’t know from Public Enemy. The problem is that, the copy editor (whose age we actually know nothing about) changed one real term (911) to another real term (9/11) without making sure the change was accurate.

      If you read the original sentence (“Public Enemy has earned notoriety with more than 20 years of politically charged music about fighting the power, challenging racism and declaring that 911 was a joke.”) there is at least one clue (“more than 20 years”) that the declaration in question took place prior to September of ’01.

      So the correction you propose, while cute, doesn’t really cut to the core of the issue and it does take a swipe at the age and general hipness of someone who spends the rest of her career altogether behind the scenes.

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