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Archive for Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Making amends at year’s end

December 29, 2004

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— This year, we were tempted to pass up our traditional fess up. After all, 2004 was not a bull market for confessions and corrections. Denial was in, repentance was out. To err was human, to admit it was a strategic blunder.

Who can forget that moment in the presidential debates when a citizen asked the president: "Please give three instances in which you came to realize you had made a wrong decision and what you did to correct it." The president couldn't come up with a single boo-boo.

Nevertheless, we -- the editorial we -- come to the end of the calendar with the impulse to clean our slate. Once again we present our slips, slides, embarrassments in a list of Media Culpas.

We begin with politics. Our errors were nothing compared to those of exit pollsters. We did not declare John Kerry a winner before he was the loser. Unlike Democrat honcho Bob Shrum, we did not ask to be the first to call him Mr. President.

But along the merry way, we described Kerry as the man elected to lead his party because he was electable. Hmmm. And after counting how many times the Democrats used the word "values" during their convention, we predicted that this could be the year the blue party "put the buzz back in the buzzword" and wrenched the values debate back from the Republicans. As Santa would say, "ho, ho, ho."

We also described John Kerry as the "third Catholic nominated for president," after Al Smith and Jack Kennedy. A handful of historians within our e-mail range counted higher. They added in Charles O'Connor, a candidate in the free-for-all presidential race of 1872. We're not sure if the Straight-Out Democrats -- don't ask -- qualify as a full-fledged party, but we will give O'Connor his place in history along with his 29,489 votes.

As for Kerry's military service, we described him as a soldier. Landlubbers "R" Us. A boatload of Navy retirees insisted that only the Army has soldiers, the navy has sailors. From now on, we'll refer to Lt. Kerry as a naval officer if our e-mailers will direct their considerable error ire at the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

Now let us apologize to our foremothers. In celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, we said there were only nine women in Congress at the time. In fact, there were 14 in Congress, 12 in the House and two in the Senate.

As for anniversaries, how it is possible that we described the "two-month anniversary" of a marriage? The word anniversary derives from annus meaning a year and versum meaning to turn. There's no such thing as a monthly anniversary. As our high school Latin teacher never said: Veni, vidi, oy vey.

In another moment, we wrote, "Students of logic will tell you that there is no way to prove a negative." Maybe not, but students of math sure tried. "Any mathematician can prove," wrote one, "that there are no two integers, p and q, such that (p/q)-squared equals two. That's certainly a negative." OK. If you say so.

As a mathorexic, we also wrote about a poll showing that Americans think the country is on the wrong track by "a majority of 47 to 41 percent." Alas, a plurality is not a majority. As the election proved.

Math challenged? How about geography? We wrote about Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian whose memoirs were banned from publication by some Treasury Department red tape. We lauded the jurist who had been lauded by the Nobel Peace Prize committee in, gulp, Stockholm. It is true that when Alfred Nobel died, Norway and Sweden were united, but the peace prize was and is still given in Oslo.

We are happy to correct our error and even happier that the Treasury Department folks have corrected theirs. They finally changed the arcane rules and Ebadi's memoirs will soon be translated and published.

Have you noticed that the only thing that the abstinence-only crowd cannot abstain from is criticizing their critics? Writing about their sex mis-education, we chided a text for teaching, among other things, that "cervical cancer is the result of premarital sex." Dozens of readers wrote to insist that since the human papillomavirus strain may cause cervical cancer, this cancer qualifies as a sexually transmitted disease.

Well, folks, it's still not the premarital sex that causes the cancer. But let's make a deal: We will add that STD footnote to our annual list if they will add condoms to their curriculum.

We also regret a failure of imagination. In April we declared that the surgical makeover show, "The Swan," was as bad as a reality show could get. Oh we of little faith. The year ends with news of a Fox broadcast called "Who's Your Daddy?" in which an adopted woman must pick her biological father from eight contestants, seven of whom are posing as Pop to get the million-dollar deception. Shame on us for underestimating TV.

Finally, if the good lord is willing and the crick don't rise, that's our last correction. Except, of course, for the controversy about rising cricks. When we last used that phrase we thought the creek was a stream. Others insist that the phrase originally referred to Creek Indians. It wasn't about water rising but about Indians uprising. In 2005, we'll let historians duke it out. Meanwhile we stand -- up to our knees -- corrected.

-- Ellen Goodman is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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