MEDIA BRANDS: NY Post's 'Kerry's Choice' correction breath of fresh air due to its light-hearted stance

The New York Post is a lot of things, but it usually can't be accused of being light-handed.

The New York Post is a lot of things, but it usually can't be accused of being light-handed.

So when I picked up its July 7 edition, which appeared the day after it fronted with an erroneous headline about John Kerry choosing Richard Gephardt as his running mate, I expected a lot of defensiveness. After all, the media chattered incessantly the previous day about how the paper could have made such a misstep. Was it a ploy to sell more copies? Was the Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid sandbagged by a Democratic operative? Or was it an honest mistake, as does happen? From its editors to its executives, the Post is a fierce protector of a brand that's defined itself not only as conservative and irreverent, but also as massively successful in a time when newspapers are struggling. Witness not only its knives-out coverage of the tribulations of crosstown rival the Daily News, but also its circulation strides over the past few years. But when it came time to explain a journalistic mistake that some say rivals the Chicago Daily Tribune's famous "Dewey Defeats Truman" botch job, the tabloid's editors were downright humble, self-mocking, and apologetic. Dubbing the mistake "Our Gaffe-hardt," an anonymous correction on page five read, "[C]all it a chicken farm's worth of egg on our face - just remember that we're striving to bring you the most informative, the most enlightening, and, yes, the most amusing newspaper in town." In both tone and content, this stands in stark contrast to the many high-profile corrections we've seen in the past year or so. Sure, it's lighter and self-deprecating, but it's also interesting for what it is not: somber, self-flagellating, defensive, or angry. There is not a hint of the self-importance that has weighed down many of the recent media foul-ups, whether full-blown scandal or a one-off error. Of course, a hard-boiled ethicist might say this isn't enough of a self-accounting: Where's the illumination of how this error was made? Who's getting canned? In the hours after the "Kerry's Choice" headline hit newsstands, the media was asking just those questions. But not for long. The Post issued a pretty much tautologous statement and saved its explanation for the next day's paper. By that time, the media had moved on to other things, covering Gaffe-hardt as more of a cultural curiosity than a journalistic faux pas. There wasn't much critical reporting beyond a thin report in The New York Times that Murdoch himself called in the Gephardt "scoop." It's hard to chalk this relative inattention to anything but smart PR on the Post's part, given the buzzard-like quality reporters display when one of their media brethren is bleeding. It's difficult to challenge the conclusion made by many that journalistic ethics are in a sad state. Hardly a week goes by when there isn't some charge of plagiarism or fabrication leveled at a reporter somewhere, all of which serve to create a rueful subtext for each and every new error. Happily, none of this was present in the Post's handling of its mistake, and it's completely refreshing.

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