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Michael Kinsley, Correctionaholic

Don’t believe a word of Kinsley’s recent WaPo column
September 11, 2009

Don’t believe a word of Michael Kinsley’s recent column for the Washington Post.

The man would have you assume that he thinks corrections are a silly thing, especially in the New York Times. His larger point, of course, is that correcting the minor errors of journalism does nothing to bolster the public’s faith in our profession. (A survey by the ASNE found the opposite.)

“What bothers people is the refusal of the Times and other papers to call President Obama a socialist or a Muslim, or to say outright that talk radio hosts are vermin,” Kinsley writes. “In short, most complainers tend to be ideologues whose vision of an accurate newspaper is far different from that of the professionals.”

He’s painting with a big brush, but those claims are far from Kinsley’s biggest offense in the piece. (CJR published a recent article by Lester Feder that also took Kinsley to task.) He spends much of his column space ridiculing the silly, mundane corrections that litter the Times’s corrections page.

“Although the purpose of this column is to demonstrate the Times’s rectitude about taking facts seriously, the facts it corrects are generally so bizarre or trivial and its tone so schoolmarmish that the effect is to make the whole pursuit of factual accuracy seem ridiculous,” he writes.

Kinsley is lying. He doesn’t believe that. He loves corrections more than the vast majority of people out there. The man reads ‘em just about every day, I assure you.

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Here’s the truth: Michael Kinsley is a correctionaholic. Been that way for close to two decades, probably longer. He used to embrace and celebrate his addiction. Now he’s slipped into denial. Consider this an intervention.

You see, Kinsley’s wry column suggests that he regards corrections as a silly feature of newspapers. But Kinsley took a decidedly different tact in a 1991 piece published in, yes, The Washington Post:

I read corrections avidly. Not just in the spirit of Schadenfreude, but as poetry. Corrections are the haiku of journalism: short, rich in imagery, hedged about by rigid stylistic rules.

His Post pieces combine with a body of work at Slate, where he was the founding editor, to make Michael Kinsley more than just a correctionaholic–he’s also a corrections pioneer. While at Slate, he created the first corrections system for an online publication. In 1996, Kinsley introduced the publication’s first corrections policy (and had a little fun at the ‘zine’s then-owner):

We asked Bill Gates what should be done when people complain about factual errors in SLATE. His advice was, “Have them killed.” We have decided, instead, in most circumstances, to correct the error and publish a notice as well. That way, readers can know that every SLATE article is as accurate as we can make it, and still have the pleasure of watching us grovel from time to time. We hope it doesn’t happen very often.

Kinsley then published what he later claimed was the first-ever online correction:

Alex Beam’s essay on The Oxford Dictionary of Canadian English inaccurately stated that the 48th parallel separates Canada from the United States. In fact, the border is at the 49th parallel. We humbly apologize to all the United States citizens above the 48th parallel, who we implied were living in Canada.

(At the risk of further exposing my own raging correction addiction, I’ll note that in 2004 the very same Alex Beam, now a columnist at the Boston Globe, wrote about the book The Fact Checker’s Bible and mentioned that he “made Internet history when Michael Kinsley published what he claimed was the first online correction in 1996, noting that I had confused the 49th with the 38th parallel in a Slate magazine article about Canada.”)

It’s possible that Kinsley has gotten a handle on his correction affliction. After all, he hadn’t written about corrections in a while. I’ll also give him credit for managing to kick his old habit of mixing Bill Gates references and corrections. He did so in his introduction of Slate’s new corrections policy, and he went there again to correct an error in the “SLATE 60”:

Our “SLATE 60” list of America’s biggest contributors to charity in 1996 originally stated that Bill Gates gave $15 to Harvard this year. The correct amount is $15 million. The editor, Washington editor, New York editor, deputy editor, and associate editors all wish to make clear that they had nothing to do with this grotesque error. It is entirely the fault of SLATE’s four young and defenseless editorial assistants, each of whom will be dealt with in the way we’re sure Mr. Gates would wish.

Clearly, this is a man that makes the most of every correction. Much like the journalists at the Times, however, his errors tend to be rather mundane. In light of his complaints about the pedantic puffery of Times corrections, I hereby offer a collection of Mr. Kinsley’s Most Boring But Essential Slate Corrections. I’ll let you judge if this is a man who can turn up his nose at a “trivial” correction:

In his July 14 “Readme” column, Michael Kinsley mistakenly attributed the question, “Who are you going to believe—us or your own two eyes?” to Groucho Marx. In fact, Chico asked it in Duck Soup.

In a July 23 article about British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s speech before the U.S. Congress, Michael Kinsley incorrectly identified Keir Hardie as the British Labor Party’s first prime minister. Hardie was the first leader of the Labor Party.

In an Oct. 20 “Read Me” column, Michael Kinsley misspelled Monica Lewinsky’s last name.

In the Feb. 2 “ReadMe,” Michael Kinsley said that when Reagan left office, taxes were $999 billion. The correct number is $991 billion.

In the Oct. 2 “Readme” column, Michael Kinsley originally misstated the hypothetical question Gen. Wesley Clark refused to answer in the Sept. 25 debate. The question asked if he would approve President Bush’s request for $87 billion to fund operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, not whether he would have supported the Iraq war resolution if he had been in the Senate.

The Feb. 2 “Readme” column by Michael Kinsley originally included information about taxes being a higher share of the economy at the end of the Reagan administration than at the end of the Clinton administration, which was incorrect. That sentence was eliminated.

Riveting stuff, I know. But necessary. So too was this Slate correction from last summer:

In a June 27 “Other Magazines,” Morgan Smith misspelled Michael Kinsley’s last name.

I doubt he’d suggest that error didn’t deserve a correction. So, Kinsley, is that regret I smell on your breath?

Correction of the Week

“The final sentence of an obituary about Bernie Feldman on Page B3 on Thursday should have read: If people would like to honor his memory, they can sign a petition to send George Bush and Dick Cheney to jail, his son said.” – Santa Cruz Sentinel

Craig Silverman is currently BuzzFeed's media editor, and formerly a fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism.