Consider this to be not so much a rather short column as perhaps the longest correction I’ve ever written.
I became aware of the need to do it two weeks ago today, on Aug. 28, when I received this email from Pilot reader Mike Carter:
“Steve, didn’t Churchill make the statement you quoted today?”
I replied something to the effect of, “Oh (expletive deleted)! You’re right.”
Mike was referring to my column of that day, in which I sang the praises of a book I had just finished reading: Victor Sebestyen’s engrossing “1946: The Making of the Modern World.”
One-third of the way down, my piece had contained these flawed words: “1946 was the year when Harry S. Truman declared in a landmark speech that ‘an iron curtain has descended’ across Europe.”
It wasn’t the American president who spoke those dramatic words, of course. It was British Prime Minister Winston Churchill — as I was re-reminded in subsequent emails from other alert Pilot readers.
“Since I was born in 1946, I enjoyed your article!” one of them wrote. “I did notice one thing that I think is inaccurate. I believe it was Winston Churchill in a speech to a private boys’ school in Westminster (I think) in Missouri.”
Yep. And it doesn’t excuse my “duh” moment to know that Churchill happened to make his famous speech in Truman’s home state — with the president, one of his biggest fans, sitting right there on the platform with him at Westminster College in Fulton.
This situation is fraught with a triple irony:
n I happen to have grown up in the Show Me State (though three hours away in the extreme southwest corner), and our teachers used to talk a lot about that speech, so I should have known the difference.
n Fact is, I DID know the difference, having earlier this year read Andrew Roberts’ terrific 1,000-page book “Churchill: Walking With Destiny,” which is what had steered me to the 1946 book in the first place.
n Most ironically of all, I happened to find out about this egregious error on the very day I was delivering an introductory lecture to my two still-new journalism classes at UNC-Chapel Hill, in which I harped on the all-important subject of — yep, you guessed it — accuracy.
“It’s all about accuracy,” I told one of the classes on that day, according to my notes. “Precision of information. Some editor once said: ‘If your mother says she loves you, check it out.’ You can’t KNOW a wrong thing. So if you’re not sure, look it up!”
In emphasizing the importance of credibility, I remember telling another class about how a local newspaper in Missouri got some important facts about my grandfather wrong in his obituary way back in 1971 — and how I could never quite trust that paper’s reporting about anything from that moment on.
Anyway, enough. Sorry, Pilot. Sorry, readers. Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa.
Steve Bouser is the retired editor and Opinion editor of The Pilot. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.