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Archive for Thursday, December 30, 1999

CLEANING THE SLATE FOR 2000

December 30, 1999

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— As a certified member of the Clean Slate Club, I like to end every year confessing the error of my column ways.

This annual event in media (self) bashing is not particularly popular with my crowd. For the most part, journalists adhere to the Bill Gates Theory of Corrections. Once, wrote editor Michael Kinsley, "we asked Bill Gates what should be done when people complain about factual errors in Slate. His advice was, 'Have them killed.'"

That may be a touch extreme. But if our salaries depended on being right, what would happen to the round-table prophets who pronounced Bill Clinton's imminent death all last year? Sweetheart, get me the pink slip.

Of course, the consequences of media mistakes are minor in the, uh, cosmic scheme of things. How can we compare an opinion gone awry to an Orbiter that went out of its orbit -- taking $125 million with it -- because Lockheed spoke in inches and NASA spoke in millimeters? They just don't understand.

Nevertheless, herein lies my annual Media Culpa column, a composite of mistakes, hindsights, updates, explanations, and a few tickets slapped on my palm by the word police.

We begin with the devil in the details, in this case the demonic Lilith. She appeared in a column mocking a Falwell warning to parents that they should keep their children away the all-woman musical festival, Lilith Fair, named after Adam's first, feminist, wife. I dated Lilith's demonization from the 7th or 8th century. Alas, a handful of scholars insist, I missed by some 1,500 or 1,600 years. But then the right wing missed by a mile.

I also had a senior moment in a column about senior moments. I said "The Canterbury Tales'' were written in Olde English. Not exactly. Try Middle English. My apologies to the descendants of Geoffrey Chaucer and the teacher who made me memorize it.

More history? I wrote about Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for president. A few picky, picky, picky folks objected on a technicality. Victoria wasn't the (real) first, they insist, because she wasn't 35. She couldn't have served even if elected. Their candidate is Belva Lockwood, who ran years later. I'll stick with Victoria, but Belva also deserves a nod.

The Show Me State showed me a thing or two. In discussing hate crimes, I noted that not even one state had extended its laws to cover gays since Matthew Shepard's murder. Well, one state had. You got it: Missouri.

As for breakthrough states, at the beginning of the year, I interviewed two Hawaiians, Joe Melillo and Patrick Lagon, the gay poster couple who've been trying to marry since 1990. "It's still a long way down this aisle," I intoned. Well, maybe in Hawaii. But in Vermont, the state Supreme Court just ruled that gay couples deserve the same protections as straights. Will the Legislature play those wedding bells? The aisle is shorter than I thought.

More breakthroughs? When both Elizabeth Dole and Hillary Clinton, aka "Hillabeth" first contemplated running for president and senator respectively, I said they were breaking the glass ceiling for political wives as well as women. Uh, not so fast. Elizabeth dropped out of the race and Hillary's moving out of the White House. As a political candidate, can a woman stand by her man and on her own two feet? Don't bump your head on that ceiling.

Now for the word police, those ever vigilant vigilantes who caught me using a "who" instead of a "whom" and "criteria" instead of "criterion." Two misdemeanors on my record. I also looked askew at the folks selling donor eggs on the Web when I should have looked askance. Or just looked the other way.

The real word offense? I showed my metal when it should have been mettle. (I must add that an editor saved me from declaring Hildegaard von Bingen to be an abyss rather than an abbess. Freud, where are you?)

I also begged the wrong question or made the wrong use of this begging bowl. "Begging the question'' means evading the question, not -- as I said -- asking for it. I beg forgiveness.

The word police, as one writer confessed, "are picking lint off clothing," but we are grateful for their traffic citations.

Now, a couple of updates before I sign off for the millennium. This year, I wrote two stories about children setting foot on our soil. Remember Amerikan, the newborn child of the grateful Kosovar refugees? If history was a guide, I wrote, he would be the family bridge between old country and new. Not so. On Sept. 21, the refugees chose to go home even to a war-torn Kosovo because life and work was too hard here.

Amerikan will however remain an American citizen, which brings me to the story of the Cuban boy engaged in a political custody fight. I wrote that Elian should go home to his father. I still think so. But Florida Sen. Connie Mack is a better Solomon than I. He suggests that to honor his mother, Elian be made a citizen, so he can choose his nationality when he's an adult. Give him his papers and send him home to his father.

That said, pass me a nice fresh millennial slate.

-- Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe.

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