How does a journalist apologize for an error? Readers are invited to post examples of apologies that they liked or disliked, but for my tastes, the following on Morning Edition today is about as good as it gets.
New Reuters columnist David Cay Johnston, interviewed today by host Steve Inskeep, said "there's no excuse" for the huge mistake he made Tuesday when he mistakenly told Inskeep in a similar interview that Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. had received $4.7 billion in tax refunds from the U.S. government in recent years. "This is a big screw-up on my part," he said.
The truth was the opposite. The company paid that much in federal taxes between 2007 and 2010. Johnston said he misread the company's tax filings, not catching a switch in how it recorded taxes. He contacted company officials before publishing what was his first column for Reuters, but they declined to comment. As he acknowledged on air, that may have been because they were distracted by News Corp.'s political scandal over phone hacking in Britain.
But Johnston, a former Pulitzer-prize winning columnist for The New York Times, didn't hide behind the company's lack of immediate responsiveness. Or to use the word that was drummed into me during officer candidate school in the army, he didn't equivocate. He honorably took full responsibility for his mistake, as he should have.
"Readers, I apologize," he wrote in a follow-up. "The premise of my debut column for Reuters, on News Corp.'s taxes, was wrong, 100 percent dead wrong.
Inskeep and NPR were equally correct in having Johnston back on the air for such a monumental error. As Inskeep said, Johnston "discussed his inaccurate findings yesterday in an interview with me on Morning Edition, so it is our obligation to make a correction that is as prominent as the original mistake."
Neither Morning Edition nor Johnson has anything to be ashamed of. We all make mistakes. Acknowledgment and an immediate apology means that this one will be forgotten within 24 hours. In my opinion, there is a lesson in this for all of us.