That’s true. And yet it’s also true, as Yale law professor and prolific blogger Jack Balkin—the person who actually realized that the Brown v. Board of Education reference was, indeed, a misquote—points out, that the blogs that linked the Scalia story were “relying on the fact that this was supposed to have been a fact-checked story by a reputable mainstream news organization.” They made a fair assumption that the information they were repeating for their readers was accurate. Though Balkin from the outset had (and expressed) doubts about the accuracy of the Brown quote in his post of the story—“Justice Scalia has always associated himself with Justice Harlan’s colorblindness language in Plessy,” he told me in an e-mail, explaining his initial skepticism about the quote—in this case, he writes, “the original duty was that of the mainstream media organization that published the piece in the first place.”
But that duty, I’d add, applies not merely to the original reporting of a story—getting it right—but also to the correction of reporting that turns out to be erroneous: getting it right for the long term. Accuracy—and, therefore, trust—are not mere matters of checking one’s facts before one posts a piece. Precision must be an ongoing process—and media outlets, be they staffed by one person or 100, must own up to their mistakes in an obvious, record-correcting, and generally transparent way. “Everyone gets a story wrong sometimes, there’s no avoiding that.” The test—and the trust—is in how outlets behave in the aftermath of error.
In the Scalia story—though one hesitates to revisit the tired old case of Bloggers v. MSM, which was decided (if, perhaps, by a split court) long ago—it’s striking, the disconnect between the correction strategies of the bloggers and of their MSM counterpart. When Balkin confirmed, through watching the video footage of the Scalia talk, that the Justice had indeed been misrepresented, he added the following lines to the top of his post:
As I suspected, Justice Scalia did not say he would have dissented in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. The newspaper account is incorrect and took his remarks out of context. The author of the article, Howard Fischer of Capitol Media Services, owes Justice Scalia an apology.
And I apologize for quoting this incorrect article in my original post.
The HuffPo provided a similar update at the top of its report: “CORRECTION: An item posted here — reporting that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia said that if he were on the court in 1954, he would have dissented in the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision that ended school segregation based on race — was incorrect.” The HuffPo piece has helpfully maintained the text of “our original, incorrect report”; at the same time, in tacit recognition of the fact that many of its readers are more accurately ‘headline skimmers,’ it has changed its headline to reflect the error of the original post: “Scalia Misquoted on Brown v. Board of Education (CORRECTED).”
Meanwhile…the newspaper—the originator of the flawed reporting, and the only member, in this crowd, of that increasingly nebulous group known as the MSM—initially simply scrubbed the offending passage from its Scalia story, without a note of explanation. Then, late in the day yesterday, it replaced the initial story with a new one. “Capitol Media Services sent an updated and corrected version of the story, which we have posted,” East Valley Tribune editor Chris Coppola told me in an e-mail yesterday evening. “It also notes the correction.”
The story now begins with an editor’s note referencing the initial ‘Scalia would dissent from Brown’ claim: “This is an updated version of a story that was originally posted Oct. 26. It removes an incorrect reference to Brown v. Board of Education in the initial version.” But the only records of the story’s original claims, on the story’s page on the Tribune sites, are phantom references to them in the article’s comments section. If one wanted to find the original claims…one would have to go to the HuffPo piece.
All of which has, to step back from Scalia for a moment, a full-circle quality to it: the bloggers exhibiting responsibility to their audience, the students becoming the masters, the circle of life, etc. In the teeming world of the Web—one defined not merely by seemingly endless variety on the part of news outlets, but also by, consequently, seemingly endless choice on the part of news consumers—one of the rarest and therefore most valuable commodities is trust.