Who says I can't admit my errors? Let me list some

Posted: June 25, 2006

"Boy, you never can admit you're wrong, can you?"

I get that a lot.

As my columnizing pal Tom Ferrick often jokes, the pundit's Latin motto should be: Errabundi Saepe, Semper Certi (Often Wrong, But Always Certain).

The job description is to offer forceful opinions. Step to the tee often enough, and you're bound to a hit a few as far off the mark as Phil Mickelson did last weekend.

When e-mailers accuse me of refusal to admit error, it's usually after they've registered displeasure with my work by suggesting I'm a cocaine-snorting cretin who indulges pederasts and yearns for Osama bin Laden to establish his caliphate in Omaha.

In such cases, my tendency is not the wise one, i.e., shrug it off. God did not give me a thick enough skin. Instead, I bang out a reply (usually civil) defending my view.

Hence: "You never can admit you're wrong."

Yes, I can. Really. Time for a soul cleansing.

Every journalist makes factual errors; it's the law of averages. If the journalist is any good, the memory of each mistake haunts forever, causing guilty nausea years later.

In my first column for this paper 12 years ago, I got someone's name wrong. In a classic brainlock, I substituted the first name of a high school classmate with the same last name. (Excuse me for a moment; I have to get down on all fours, pound the floor and scream.)

But the dumb factual gaffes aren't the ones that most humble me. Worse are the grandly proclaimed judgments that prove just plain wrong.

Bill Gates recently announced he was giving up daily control of Microsoft to focus on philanthropy. This recalls one of my whoppers.

The '90s tech boom created a cadre of brash young millionaires who carried themselves like heroes of an Ayn Rand novel. Not much social conscience in evidence.

In a New Yorker profile of Gates, the writer asked when he'd begin to devote some of his eye-popping wealth to good causes. Gates replied that it took as much thought and hard work to give your money away properly as it did to make it. I snorted in disdain. What a lame excuse! Soon after, I published a short story that retold The Christmas Carol, with a Gates-like tech tycoon getting scared out of his geeky selfishness by the ghosts of Christmas.

How wrong can a guy be? The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is now a leader in bold, thoughtful giving aimed at global challenges.

Not that you ever had reason to care a whit what I thought of you, Mr. Gates, but you have my heartfelt apology.

Other times, my error was going too easy on someone. In 2002, I gave The Torch a pass. The editorial page I lead should have been the first to call for U.S. Sen. Robert "The Torch" Torricelli to resign as evidence of the Democrat's petty corruptions mounted. I kept letting myself get talked out of it by colleagues. By the time we gave The Torch the boot he deserved, just about every paper but the Secaucus Morning Bugle had done it. I regret that.

I've also let the judgments of others lead me to underestimate politicians. Pro-choice liberals blanch at the name of U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (R., N.J.) because he pushes his moral abhorrence of abortion so hard in Congress. But watching Smith over the years, I've come to see him as one of the most sincere, morally consistent politicians around. He did lonely, groundbreaking work on human-rights issues such as sweatshops and the slave trade in young girls. He is an admirable human being and a lesson in never judging someone on one litmus-test issue.

Now, the Big One. I was wrong about WMD in Iraq. I thought Saddam Hussein had an active biochemical weapons program, or the ability to crank one up swiftly.

In my defense, I knew much of what Dick Cheney was pushing was nonsense. The people who persuaded me were the Clinton-era wonks like Ken Pollack. Also, while I could see a human-rights argument for "regime change," I did not support an invasion timed when this one was. Bush had gotten weapons inspectors back into Iraq, and bravo for that. Chief inspector Hans Blix estimates they were about two months away from demonstrating conclusively what is now apparent: Saddam had bupkis. (Sorry, Rick Santorum, no sale on what you're peddling.) So why invade then, unless WMD were only a pretext?

Finally, there's one vital issue about which I am dead wrong year after year after year: Every April, I think this is the season the Phillies won't let us down.

Chris Satullo is editorial page editor. To comment, call 215-854-4243 or e-mail csatullo@phillynews.com.

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