Archive for Monday, January 1, 2007

Out with old mistakes, in with the new

January 1, 2007

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— The controversies of the year past - Iraq, immigration, domestic surveillance and the rest, plus the political battles that climaxed in the Democratic victories in November - all contributed to an exceptionally heavy load of reader-generated corrections and objections. Thanks to e-mail, many more of you are now contributing to this annual year-end "goofs" column, where I review (and repent) some of the judgments and misjudgments of the past year.

To start with the simplest, in an August piece about Ohio politics, I wrote that Ted Strickland was trying to become the first congressman since Rutherford B. Hayes to be elected governor of Ohio. Several of you pointed out that I had ignored two subsequent figures who moved from Congress to that governorship, James M. Cox and Frank B. Willis.

An interview with Bill Gates produced a wave of protests. The Microsoft billionaire was in Washington to lobby for an expansion of the H-1B visa program, which provides entry for foreign-born scientists and engineers who hold job offers in the United States. Gates said the limit on their numbers was hurting America's competitive position.

The letter-writers, many of whom identified themselves as unemployed or underemployed people with similar skills, claimed that the H-1B workers were taking their jobs and working at lower wages. I waded through a mass of testimony and evidence, supplied by both sides in the controversy, without being able to resolve the issue. It will likely come up again when the next Congress tackles immigration reform, and this time, I promise I'll look at both sides before I write about it.

I had a similar experience when I wrote about Sen. Joe Biden's proposal for decentralizing the government of Iraq, allowing more authority for separate Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish regions. I commended the Biden proposal as a step forward from what was already, last May, a seriously stalemated and deteriorating situation in Iraq.

But after the column appeared, I received several communications from people with as much knowledge of Iraq as Biden possesses. They argued that such a step toward federalism had serious dangers. It would be difficult to apply in urban areas such as Baghdad, where populations are mixed, and it risked, the correspondents said, inviting other countries such as Iran and Turkey to spread their influence into a partitioned Iraq.

Those same objections have blocked adoption of the Biden plan, but meantime, Iraqis fleeing violence have increasingly separated themselves into Shiite or Sunni strongholds, leaving the situation even worse than if there had been an orderly and legal division of authority.

Another column that drew great protest was one where I took my colleagues in the media to task for their treatment of Karl Rove in the Valerie Plame leak investigation. When the special prosecutor announced he was not charging Rove with anything, I reviewed some of the many articles which had accused the White House aide of masterminding the "outing" of Plame and said that an apology was in order.

The e-mail and letter-writers argued that the simple fact that Rove had escaped prosecution did not mean that he was innocent of using his position to harass and frustrate critics of the administration. He had, after all, confirmed Plame's identity to at least two reporters working on the story. Even if the original leak came from elsewhere, these letter-writers said, Rove was no innocent.

But I still believe there is an important cautionary tale for the press in the Rove-Plame story. Too many of us got way ahead of the facts and let our suspicions grow into assumptions and assertions for which we had no evidence. That tendency to get ahead of the story is rampant in the media just now, fed by the speedup of news delivery through the Internet and cable. Just look at the stories announcing - in 2006 - who are "serious" candidates for president in 2008.

Speaking of politics, I'm embarrassed to say that the one state I wrote about that I got wrong was Michigan, where I spent enough time to have known better. I thought Gov. Jennifer Granholm was going to be sunk by the auto industry unemployment, but she put on a great campaign and won.

On the other hand, I saw both stages of the Connecticut race correctly - Joe Lieberman losing the primary but winning as an independent in November. And the downfall of the Republican Congress and rise of an independent breed of Democrats was forecast here from early March onward.

But a column about Hillary Rodham Clinton, touching lightly on the state of her marriage, drew lots of catcalls - a tip-off that this subject will be a tough one to handle if she enters the presidential race. Bring on 2007.

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