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In opinion journalism, the hardest words are ‘I was wrong’

A columnist considers when it’s time to correct a bad take.

Virginia Buckingham, former CEO of the Massachusetts Port Authority, near the Logan Airport 9/11 Memorial this past September.
Virginia Buckingham, former CEO of the Massachusetts Port Authority, near the Logan Airport 9/11 Memorial this past September.Steven Senne/Associated Press

What happens when opinion writing is based on a premise that turns out to be wrong?

The 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks forced me to confront that question in a very personal way. A front-page story in The New York Times recounted the guilt and trauma experienced by Virginia Buckingham, who was chief executive of the Massachusetts Port Authority when terrorists boarded two jets at Logan International Airport and flew them into the Twin Towers. In the aftermath of the attacks, news stories raised questions about airport security issues as well as Buckingham’s ascension to the top job absent any relevant airport management or security credentials.

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In the 20th anniversary story, the Times, referring to me as one of the Boston columnists who had been “getting antsy” that no one was being held accountable a month after the attack, quoted from a column I wrote at the time. It stated that “somewhere in Afghanistan, Osama Bin Laden is laughing” over the lack of leadership in Massachusetts, and it called for the head of a task force set up to scrutinize Massport operations to “strip away the politics and decide, on the merits, what is right for the safety of the flying public and the future health of the New England economy.” My presumption was that doing the right thing meant Buckingham had to go.

Buckingham resigned under pressure. Jane Swift, who was the acting governor in 2001, told the Times she concluded it was politically untenable to keep Buckingham in her job. Three years later, the 9/11 Commission said it found no evidence the terrorists targeted particular airports or airlines: “Nothing stands out about any of them with respect to the only security layer that was relevant to the actual hijackings: checkpoint screening.” In other words, there was nothing special about Logan or the person who ran it that made the terrorists choose that airport as their starting point. Yet Buckingham had borne the brunt of the blame.

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To some extent, it’s inevitable that opinion writers will build columns on premises that turn out to be faulty. We respond to the who, what, when, and where of breaking news long before the official how and why are known. The potential for being wrong is even greater today. In the modern world of digital journalism, news takes off faster than a Jeff Bezos rocket ship, and the hotter and quicker the take, the better. The reward can be a glorious ride to the top of the Web traffic rankings.

But there’s always risk in speed. If journalism is the first draft of history, breaking news is the roughest draft of all. Build an opinion on a shaky foundation and collapse is always a possibility. At what point does the writer have an obligation to admit that since the facts were wrong, so were the opinions built around them? And why is that so difficult?

These questions are timely again because of what’s happened with one of the biggest news stories of the past five years — the 35-page memo that came to be known as the “Steele dossier.” Published by BuzzFeed News after Donald Trump’s 2016 election, it contained allegations of collusion between the president-elect and President Vladimir Putin of Russia, along with a lurid, unconfirmed tale involving Trump, prostitutes, and a Moscow hotel room.

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As Bill Grueskin, a professor at Columbia Journalism School, who has held editing positions at The Wall Street Journal, the Miami Herald, and Bloomberg News, wrote in an op-ed for the Times on Monday, the Steele dossier has now been “largely discredited by two federal investigations and the indictment of a key source.” But as he also pointed out, that happened long after it “would inspire a slew of juicy and often thinly sourced articles and commentaries” about Trump and Russia. On the question of “Where did the press go wrong?” Grueskin offers a range of explanations. They include Trump’s history of sidling up to Putin; his choice of Paul Manafort, who had shady business ties to Russia, as his campaign chairman; denials from “confirmed liars,” such as Trump’s onetime lawyer Michael Cohen; and of course, the mainstream media’s innate distrust and dislike of Trump. (I mentioned the Steele dossier in a column about James Comey and one about Robert Mueller.)

Others, like conservative columnist Andrew Sullivan, attribute what he tags as the media’s recent track record for getting things wrong to one thing: pure bias. In a recent piece on Substack, titled “When all the media narratives collapse,” Sullivan argues that “all the errors lie in the exact same direction.” The examples he cites are from the left. He takes on the media casting of Kyle Rittenhouse as a “far-right vigilante” who “in the middle of race riots, had gone looking for trouble far from home and injured one man, and killed two, in a shooting spree.” His other examples of so-called collapsed narratives include the Steele dossier; the media dismissal of the COVID lab leak story; the role of homophobia in the Pulse nightclub shooting; and anti-Asian bias as the motivation for the Atlanta spa shooter. He doesn’t address the equally concerning issues of media bias from the right, from Benghazi to the supposedly stolen 2020 election.

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Both Grueskin and Sullivan call upon journalists to own up to their mistakes — which is easier said than done, as anyone who has ever sought a correction knows. Sullivan references his personal mea culpa — the unflinchingly titled “I Was Wrong” — which charts his blogging journey from being one of the most prominent advocates for the invasion of Iraq after the 9/11 attack to believing the war should never have been waged. In the afterword, Sullivan confronts the totality of his misjudgments and writes: “The only thing I am not ashamed of is the struggle of changing my mind.”

Why is that struggle so hard? Why is our first instinct to dig in, defend, and resist new information that resets the story line? Why is it so hard to say, “I was wrong”?

I can still make the case that before I was wrong, I was right. Up against the horrific backdrop of 9/11, it was fair to raise questions about Buckingham’s credentials. Given their knowledge of patronage at Massport, many in the business and political worlds had the same questions. As a political appointee familiar with hardball politics, she should have expected that reaction. Maybe it was premature to argue she should be fired before all the facts were known, but there was a crisis of public confidence that needed to be confronted. The governor could have said she had full faith in Buckingham and taken the fierce political blowback that would have gone with it. She didn’t.

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But then, after the dust settles and the facts are in, what about the journalistic obligation to acknowledge error? When the 9/11 Commission issued its report, I didn’t return to the story. Doing so would not have changed the outcome for Buckingham, but it would have set the record straight. I don’t think I deliberately ducked it. It’s just that for the person on my side of the keyboard, life, news, and opining move on. It’s different for the person on the other side.

When the Times reached out for comment for their story, I declined. But it stuck with me. This time I was on the other side of the keyboard. This reckoning isn’t about sympathy for Buckingham, and certainly not about sympathy for Trump. It’s about media credibility. The press rightly holds others accountable for their mistakes. Why not ourselves?

How many journalists will go back now and set the record straight on the Steele dossier? Take it from me: It should not take 20 years.


Joan Vennochi can be reached at joan.vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @joan_vennochi.