Media Culpas For 1990

Ellen Goodman

December 25, 1990|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON — EACH DECEMBER, in a effort to clean my slate and greet the New Year pure of heart and purified of error, I list the mistakes and misjudgments that found their way into this space over the last 12 months and 75,000 words.

My annual Media Culpas is a rite that I find good for the soul. Nothing, of course, in my 1990 notepad compares with the boners committed by others. It was not I, after all, who told Victor Kiam that the whole New England Patriots locker-room scandal would blow over if he just hung tough. Nor was it I who told 2 Live Crew that, aw, nobody cares about the words anyway.

It was Iben Browning who predicted the earthquake-that-never-was in New Madrid, Missouri. It was Donald Trump who bragged, ''Even if the world goes to hell in a handbasket, I won't lose a penny.''

Nevertheless, there were mistakes made and amends to be mended.

First on my list, a retraction. This summer I awarded the Dubious Equality prize to Wisconsin Phamarcal, for manufacturing a condom for women instead of promoting male responsibility. As any number of correspondents wrote, AIDS is an equal-opportunity infection, and women can't always depend on men for their protection.

In the same medical mood, I took a critical look at gender bias in health research. In the course of this, I suggested that even breast cancer was getting short shrift. Dr. Bruce Chabner, director of the cancer treatment for the National Institutes of Health, cried foul. Among his points, it isn't $17 million but $77 million being spent. Fair enough, though not money enough.

Twice this year, I offended animals or at least their lovers. A veterinarian and teacher was aghast that I would compare a politician, John Silber, to a pit-bull terrier. For this slander against the canine species, I apologize. Compared to John, the pit bull is a pussycat.

Another protested that I had unfairly compared the struggle between Donald and Ivana to those between the cobra and the mongoose. This time I had maligned the mongoose. Kipling described this creature ''like a little cat in his fur and his tail, but quite like a weasel in his head and his habits.'' Seems like The Ivana to me.

This year I also described the all-male bastion, the Virginia Military Institute, as ''Spartan, neo-Gothic and dogfaced ugly.'' It wasn't the dog lovers protesting but the school's superintendent. He insists that it's an architectural landmark. O.K., but I still think it could use, uh, a woman's touch.

Wordsmiths are even more sensitive than animal watchers and this year many scurried from dictionary to pen. In one diatribe against athletics, I described myself as sports-orexic. A correspondent hastened to tell me a sports-orexic is someone who loves the game. I was, and am, sports-anorexic.

Another linguist objected to my use of the word chador in describing the garment covering Saudi women. Chador is a Persian word. In Saudi it's called an abaya. Point taken, but in either country it's hard to drive in.

When it rains mistakes, it pours. In a piece about ethnicity, I wrote that ''Political linguists poured over the tapes.'' I deeply hope that they ''pored'' over them.

Those who pored over my own copy protested that I had missed the difference between execution and suicide. I referred to Socrates' death by swallowing hemlock as suicide. Not exactly. Hemlock was the capital punishment of Athens. He merely administered the sentence.

More literary boners. I called Virginia Woolf's famous book, ''A Room of Her Own.'' Virginia, however, called it, ''A Room of One's Own.''

lTC Worse yet, I referred to Horatio Alger Jr., as if he had been the hero of the quintessential American stories. Nope. Alger, or ''Holy Horatio'' as he was known at Harvard in the mid-19th century, was the author.

Finally, although the statute of limitations on these corrections is usually one year, I'll reach back into 1989 to rectify a mistake about a mistake. When Rep. Barney Frank was under the gun for hiring a male prostitute, I thought the scandal would tarnish him and the things he (and I) cared about. As a constituent, I thought he had to quit.

Wrong. It's been a tough road back. We're all a bit older and wiser. We're learning there's a second act in America, and Barney has a good solid part in it.

Slate clean, Media Culpas made, on to 1991 . . . carefully.

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