My big mistake

Here’s a confessional memo I just sent to my associate editors here at the paper. While I await their responses (which could take a while, since one of them is out of the office), I seek your advice as well:

Folks, I need
your advice as to whether I need to do a correction and, if so, what in the
world it would say. Here’s what John McCain said last week during the debate, in
the context of general remarks on immigration, following an accusation from Tom
Tancredo that he (McCain) had favored "amnesty." (Note that he was not
responding to anyone else having said anything about the Fort Dix plot; he just
brought it up.):

My friend, the people that
came, that almost attacked us at Fort Dix — thank God they did not — these
people didn’t come here across our borders; they came with visas that were
expired. So, we’ve got to enforce our border, that’s our first and foremost
priority, but we also have to have a comprehensive solution and it has to be
bipartisan, and I believe we’re close to reaching that, and that’s what the
American people expect us to do. The status quo is unacceptable.

THIS is what I wrote in
my column Sunday:

    Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s campaign
put out a statement purporting to address the proposal that was, to say the
least, oblique: “The recent Fort Dix plot is a stark reminder that the threat of
terrorism has made immigration an important matter of national security. We need
to know who is coming in and who is going out of this country if we are going to
deal with those who are here illegally.”
    As Sen. McCain had said during the debate, the
Fort Dix plotters didn’t sneak into the country illegally. The issues are
completely unrelated.
Essentially, I was
expressing my objection to Giuliani linking Fort Dix and immigration, and I just
dragged in a paraphrase from McCain in which I had thought that he was agreeing
with me. Of course, I still think what I think regardless of what McCain said.
But I was wrong that none of the plotters had entered illegally, and I later
changed the blog version of the column to say, "the
Fort Dix plotters didn’t all sneak into
the country illegally."
That’s one thing that
would warrant a correction, if y’all think it’s worth it this late. But then, at
the start of the interview this morning, McCain said:

First of all and foremost it
is a national security issue. Since 9/11 the issue has gone from one of either
social or economic or humanitarian to one of national security. The six people
that were apprehended that were planning on attacking Fort Dix were in this
country illegally; three of them had crossed our border illegally, and the other
three had overstayed valid visas, which also describes the dimension of the
problem as well. Now we can’t have 12 million people in the United States of
America who we don’t know who they are or where they are and what they’re doing.
So it has become first and foremost a national security issue, ,and of course,
border security and enforcing our border should be and is in this legislation a
first priority.

Thinking uh-oh, I
screwed up, I said this when I had a chance to ask a
a little embarrassed because I think I misheard you last week in the debate; I
had thought that you were making the point that what happened at Fort Dix was a
separate issue from this particular immigration issue, but what you’re saying is
the opposite, is that you believe that they’re very closely
And he
responded thusly:

As I mentioned, three of the people who wanted to
attack Fort Dix came across our Southern border. Every nation has the
requirement to secure its borders; if it doesn’t, it’s not carrying out its
obligations to its citizens.

… I don’t know what impression I gave you, but if we
have people who are able to cross our borders and come into our country without
us taking every step to prevent them from doing that and they do it in an
illegal fashion, then we’re not fulfilling our

After all
this, I still think it’s a stretch to conclude that the Fort Dix plot teaches us
that the 12 million people in our country illegally, mostly Mexicans, are a
threat. And that’s what I meant. But I think McCain is right when he points out
(as he did a moment later in the interview, but I’ll spare you THAT quote) that
while most of the illegals are no threat, how will we separate out any who ARE a
threat — and it only takes a few — and protect our country from them, if all
these folks are invisible and underground?
So — what do
you think I should do, aside from posting all this on my blog, which I already
plan to do? And if I do a correction, how do I explain what I did wrong in less
than column length?
Folks, I
can’t remember when I’ve screwed one short paragraph in a column this
thoroughly. I’m sorry, and embarrassed.


Brad Warthen
VP/Editorial Page Editor
The State

Actually, I can’t remember when I’ve screwed anything up that thoroughly — particularly, I don’t remember ever having mischaracterized the thrust of what someone was saying to that extent. I’ve always prided myself on my ability to get that right, whatever my flaws. So yeah, ditch that one little paragraph and the column is fine; I stand behind what I said. But that doesn’t make me feel better about it.


7 thoughts on “My big mistake

  1. Jeff M

    I’d say, display the same excerpt from your Sunday column that you show here, and say something to the effect of:
    The latter paragraph contains one factual error and one misinterpretation:
    Three of the six plotters did, in fact, sneak across the border.
    McCain was not claiming these two issues were unrelated. Rather, he was defending his position on the immigration issue by highlighting his desire for a more workable, enforceable policy.

    How’s that?

  2. cw

    Jeff M has a good suggestion.
    “As Sen. McCain had said during the debate, the Fort Dix plotters didn’t all sneak into the country illegally. The issues are completely unrelated.”
    I don’t like McCain – but I like misrepresentation of someone’s position even less, and your “fix” still misrepresents McCain’s – in both sentences. The second sentence in the above paragraph implies that the opinion expressed is also his. It certainly is not. It is yours, and should be clairified as such.

  3. Brad Warthen

    That sounds good.
    What about this — what if I did a simple, declarative fact correction in the paper Friday (it’s too late to do it for Thursday at this point, and I wanted to give people a chance to offer their suggestions) — but telling people they can get an elaboration, plus audio clarifying McCain’s position, at the blog?
    I think that would be kind of cool.
    That would maximize the information available. It would set the record straight for everybody, while at the same time not waste precious newsprint boring to death the people who don’t want that much info (I refer to my above explanation, which extends to nearly 1,000 words — they just want the record set straight.

  4. Weldon VII

    Perhaps you should just admit that you were wrong to say “the issues are completely unrelated,” because, to anybody but a journalist looking to pick apart something a candidate said, the issues of uncontrolled illegal immigration and a plot to kill U.S. soldiers by even legal immigrants are obviously somewhat related.
    Those who parse what candidates say should parse what they write just as thoroughly.
    Incidentally, when I read your column, the phrase “the issues are completely unrelated” stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb.

  5. Brad Warthen

    Not to defend myself when the whole point here is that I was in the wrong, but what do you think this post was about if not thoroughly parsing what I write?
    Why, if I had parsed what McCain said as strenuously, maybe I wouldn’t have made the mistake the first time.
    If you don’t think journalists — this one, at least — are thoroughly obsessive about our words, you are as mistaken as I was in that regrettable paragraph.

  6. Weldon VII

    That was the point: pre-publication parsing, not post-publication anguish.
    And, trust me, I’m quite sure journalists obsess about their words.
    I’m just wondering why you made your “big mistake” in the context of the Republican debate and not about the Democrats.

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