Friday, August 25, 2006

How to (and not) Handle errors

Getting caught having a major fact wrong is embarrassing and hard on the ego. I've certainly experienced it many times. But what's far worse is not correcting the error and pretending everything's fine. When you correct the error promptly, and are a bit humble about it, you get a good amount of respect. Try to bluff, and you lose respect.

Radley Balko, an analyst with the Cato Institute, may have to learn this the hard way. I usually agree with what Balko writes, but he simply got a major fact wrong -- actually two facts wrong.

Balko referred to a jury nullification decision as being handed down by the Supreme Court, when the decision never reached the Supreme Court. He also said the decision was favorable to jury nullification, when it wasn't.

Balko corrected the first error, pointed out by blogger Patterico, but has yet to correct the second, an error emphasized by blogger Xrlq. Making things worse, Balko referred to Xrlq on Patterico's blog as a " dim-witted, quick-tempered, angry douchebag that nobody reads".

Yes, Xrlq has a temper, but Balko was dim-witted for not checking the decision more closely before citing it a Fox News commentary last year -- and even more dim-witted for not correcting his errors more graciously.

In the article, Balko quoted the decision, U.S. v. Dougherty, but falsely said the decision upheld jury nullification. In fact, the decision said courts do not have to instruct juries about nullification. Balko picked out a quote from the decision that did not reflect this outcome.
Balko has presented this as a prosecutor vs. Libertarian disagreement, which is sad and wrong. It is a question of factuality. Regardless of one's political beliefs, one has the obligation to be factual, and to correct errors once found. If Libertarian philosophy is correct, it can withstand intense factual scrutiny.

Patterico wrote: "The key to credibility is not failing to make mistakes, but correcting them when you do." I couldn't agree more.


Sunday, August 20, 2006

Facts vs. the LA Times

The LA Times keeps screwing up the most basic facts of the city it covers. And no one has been more zealous in exposing its mistakes than Brady Westwater. Writing as "LA Cowboy,", Westwater regularly pounds the Times for indisputable, glaring factual errors.

The latest: an opinion piece that falsely claimed Skid Row homeless were hosed off the streets in cleanup work. Westwater, who does a lot of work with the homeless, knew this was bogus the instant he saw it a few weeks ago. He began demanding answers. He's pieced together a good account, detailing how the Times gave false information to a British instructor (who has rarely visited Los Angeles), which he then used as a basis for his piece. The LA Downtown News found the instructor's identity and how he came to be hired for the piece.

The instructor, Tom Slater, reportedly wrote these mortifiying words when he found out he had been misled by the Times:

"You and your organisation have every reason to be angry. The Times completely misinformed me about what had happened with regard to the street cleaning - I was led to believe by the newspaper that "homeless people were literally swept and hosed out of their makeshift encampments", and I was asked to write an article situating these events within the broader context of gentrification. I was mortified to learn that sentence was factually inaccurate, and would like to apologise for this error. My mistake was that I trusted a respected newspaper; I should have checked the facts."

The correction that got printed was much more restrained, and less informative. Whle accusations of media bias are troublesome and get most of the attention from media critics, basic, howling errors of fact are far more dangerous to media credibility. I think ex-Timesman Ken Reich is correct that the artless Chicago-based Tribune Co. has sapped the Times of its historical knowledge of the city. I disagree with Reich on one point: He thinks its jealousy, while I think it's incompetence.

Read it all

Hat tip to Patterico and Kevin Roderick


Friday, August 11, 2006

The Conservative Choice for Prez

Stephen Bainbridge, an erudite, reality-based conservative law professor, has announced his choice for president in 2008. An inspired choice, I must say. One that people of all political persuasions can unite behind. He (it?) would be the ultimate no-nonsense leader. I can't imagine the Iraqi insurgents lasting one minute against his call. However, I'm not fond of having the capital moved to R'lyeh, becasue the climate is even worse than D.C.'s.

Considering how insane American politics has become, I've got a suggestion for the ultimate running-mate.


Friday, August 04, 2006

Wireless joy -- The LG VX9800

Pleasanter subject matter than yesterday: my newest gadget. It's the LG VX9800 cell/camera/video/e-mail/Web/MP3 player/organizer phone. I've left out a few goodies. I reviewed this amazingly full-featured "kitchen sink" phone last year, and finally got one of my own from Verizon Wireless.

While the buzz is about Verizon's new "chocolate phone"; the VX 9800 is what I've wanted for months. Here's just one example of its usefulness: I bookmark the North County Times' traffic report pages, so I can quickly check conditions before heading to work or home. I can get that info anywhere without needing to be at a computer.

The chocolate phone has some nice additional features, such as video recording time of up to one hour, (versus 15 seconds), but I have no regrets about getting the VX9800, which has gotten very positive reviews from the geek community. It is simply a well-engineered, solid piece of gadgetry. But Verizon hid one of its best features, the MP3 player, so you'll have to find it by yourself. More about this phone later.


Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Jason Leopold responds

Jason Leopold didn't like my statements calling him a "fabulist", and supposedly accusing him of fabricating stories. (I merely meant to say his stories were wildly wrong and irresponsible, not that he was making stuff up.) Leopold sent me a couple of e-mails over the weekend threatening legal action. Here are some excerpts.

"It has come to my attention that you published comments accusing me of fabricating stories and of being a fabulist, which is defamatory and libelous on its face. . . However, I imagine that once I take action agains you, should have no problem rounding up these people and the evidence to support your libelous and defamatory commentary. . . But I take your written claims against me very seriously, and I intend to pursue a civil action against you unless you either provide hard documented proof to back up your published allegations that I am a "fabulist". or you either immediately retract your statements in writing or send me an apology letter."

Here's my response. I have no evidence to prove that Jason Leopold has deliberately fabricated any stories. I retract any previous statement that he has deliberately published any falsehoods, or that implication in the use of the word "fabulist." Apologies, Jason. I won't publish such uncorroborated statements about you again.

As far as the word "fabulist" goes, one of its dictionary meanings is "liar." Leopold has admitted to lying in the pursuit of stories, and thinks it's just fine. (See below) Since Leopold hates being called a fabulist, I'll just say he's an admitted liar and leave it at that.

What do we know about Jason Leopold? We know that Jason Leopold has a history of writing unproven stories. This includes his Salon piece charging among other things that former Enron executive Thomas White had sent an e-mail ordering Enron losses to be covered up. Salon said it removed the story because it could not confirm the e-mail's existence.

Salon's statement on removing Leopold's story also mentioned his plagiarism of the Financial Times: "Whatever its basis, this sort of plagiarism is a serious breach of journalistic trust, and caused us to go back over every detail and aspect of the original article. Our review led us to take this latest step."

And there is his recent unproven "scoop" that Karl Rove has been indicted, which months after the fact has not been substantiated. Add to that the strange story of his interactions with Joe Lauria.

"Most mainstream news organizations have dismissed the Leopold story as egregiously wrong. But even if he had gotten it right and scooped the world on a major story, his methods would still raise a huge question: What value does journalism have if it exposes unethical behavior unethically? Leopold seems to assume, as does much of the public, that all journalists practice deception to land a story. But that's not true. I know dozens of reporters, but Leopold is only the second one I've known (the first did it privately) to admit to doing something illegal or unethical on the job."

If Leopold's stories about White and Rove turn out to be true after all, he'd redeem himself as an accurate journalist. I'm not holding my breath. Until then, we can just chalk up Jason Leopold as an admitted liar and felon who writes sensational stories that don't deliver what they claim to. Jason Leopold is a pathetic caricature of a journalist best heeded as an example of what not to do.


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