An apology to readers

A succession of errors—most of them trivial, some less so

An apology to readers
By John Ryle  •  4 November 1996  •  City of Words  •  Posted 2016  •  983 words

There was an error in the very first sentence of this column last week, I am sorry to say. And another the week before. Small mistakes that no one has complained about, which were corrected in the online version. Maybe no one noticed them. But they start to add up.

“Thursday,” I wrote last week, “was UN World Disarmament Day, though you could be forgiven for having missed it.” You could indeed be forgiven, because it wasn’t. It was UN Day. UN Day fell—according to some almanacs—in World Disarmament Week, but it wasn’t UN World Disarmament Day. There is, unfortunately perhaps, no UN World Disarmament Day.

And the week was not, as I suggested, a blank period in the field of arms control. Rather the opposite. During that week the last hurdle to a worldwide ban on chemical warfare was crossed—finally—when Hungary became the sixty-fifth country to ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention. In the painfully slow world of arms control a detail like this is a major event.

October was a fruitful month in another area of disarmament: the Canadian government hosted a conference in Ottawa on anti-personnel landmines. The government delegates at the conference didn’t actually agree to ban them, but, as with chemical weapons, they got significantly closer. I attended the conference myself—so I don’t know how I could have omitted to mention it.

The week before, on my way back from Ottawa, I reported a conversation with an Egyptian cab driver in Newark I called Mahmoud, in which I had him speaking of the “Fruit of Islam”. It should have been the Nation of Islam. What was I thinking of? I can’t blame Mahmoud’s erratic English for this mistake, only my own. This error matters because Mahmoud was drawing a distinction between the religious practice of the Nation of Islam, under the leadership of Louis Farrakhan, which he strongly deprecated, and that of the majority of Muslims in America, who are, like him, not followers of Farrakhan.

The subject of the piece in question was the disappearance of that foreign correspondent’s stand-by genre, the taxi-driver’s tale. Mahmoud was not just any taxi-driver, it turned out, but a former lodger in the house of Sheikh Omar, the Egyptian cleric accused of involvement in the attempted World Trade Center bombing—a matter that is still sub judice. Since he is unlikely ever to read the article or have the chance to correct it himself, it particularly behoved me to record what he said accurately.

I’d like a number of other offences against facticity to be taken into account. In August I wrote about malaria, underestimating the number of deaths per year by a factor of ten: it’s millions, not hundreds of thousands. (My thanks to Manoj Duraisingh of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine for pointing this out.) I hope my underestimate has not been factored into anyone’s tropical travel risk calculations.

Small error on arts page: More dead than previously stated

In an earlier column I made a still more egregious demographic error, airing the oft-repeated notion that the number of people alive in the world exceeded the number who had ever lived. This is an interesting idea, but it’s not true. By the best estimates there are more than sixty billion people in the grave: twelve times more than currently walk the earth. What was particularly embarrassing was that the theory had been scotched some years before in the Guardian by a contributor to the Notes and Queries column—that arbiter of truth and fable. Neither I nor the subeditor noticed this. I corrected the figures in a subsequent column, but it hasn’t stopped the mistake being repeated by others since, in this paper and elsewhere.

Perhaps you don’t expect accuracy in your news media. Perhaps the blur of fact and artefact, of hype and happenstance, has inured you to error and misapprehension in the papers you read. I hope not. Journalists need correctives to the institutional pressures of newspaper production. The search for style, or plausibility, can lure the writer away from veracity. Deadlines concentrate the mind, as Dr Johnson said, but they can also dull the professional conscience.

Some of the mistakes catalogued above were pointed out to me by readers, acting as unpaid fact-checkers. Many thanks to them. On publications that boast professional fact-checkers—mostly in the United States—their meticulous pedantry has saved many writers from themselves. For this reason I claimed—a trifle hyperbolically—in a column last year, that writing for the New Yorker means never having to say you’re sorry.

Writing about the New Yorker is another matter. In another column I cited the grilling that they gave to a poem. The poem was Craig Raine’s History: the Home Movie. Alas, I managed to get the title wrong, missing out the word “home”. And this in an article about fact-checking.

Recently the Microsoft-owned on-line magazine Slate announced a special Egg-On-Our Face Edition. It listed a number of errors, in a characteristically jocular tone:

When we told Bill Gates [Microsoft owns Slate] the name of the person responsible, he said, “Have him killed.” But we showed the perpetrator mercy and only suspended his Web privileges for a week.

As an on-line publication Slate is in the position of being able to make silent corrections to posted articles, but it refrains from doing so, noting corrections, rightly, in addenda or notes to the article. Behind their joking tone is a serious idea: the idea of a publication of record. It is encouraging that this idea survives in the on-line universe. ★


Interestingly, however, the Slate egg-on-our-face edition, and the remarks quoted above, are no longer to be found on the Slate site, having apparently been excluded from the magazine’s online archive.