Precious Art of Newspaper Correction

TRB

May 30, 1991|By TRB

WASHINGTON — Washington. - The New York Times recently ran the following item in its popular ''Corrections'' column:

''An article in The Living Section on April 24 about yerba mate, a Paraguayan beverage, referred imprecisely to a group of herbs used medicinally in Paraguay. Some of them, including palo santo and naranjo, have Spanish names.''

Now that is magnificent. It has everything one looks for in a correction: lyricism, romance, pathos, mystery. In two brief sentences, on a page otherwise devoted to the routine betrayals of diplomats and politicians, one is plunged into a world of exotic beverages and medicinal herbs.

Like all great corrections, this one hints at -- but does not totally reveal -- two dramas: the making of the original error and the making of the correction itself.

Thus the mind indulges in delightful speculation. What desperation of consumer novelty-seeking reduced the Times' Living Section to writing about Paraguayan refreshments? Down what byway had we wandered to be misinformed that certain Paraguayan medicinal herbs don't have Spanish names?

What oversensitive Hispanophile took such umbrage at this implication that he or she demanded a correction, and why was he or she not told to go away and drink a yerba mate?

And then, as a final delight, there is the note of grudging contrition (''referred imprecisely''), especially prized by corrections connoisseurs.

As self-flagellation has come into fashion in American journalism, corrections have blossomed. Most major papers now run a box full of them every day. I read corrections avidly. Not just in the spirit of Schadenfreude, but as poetry. Corrections are the haiku of journalism: short, rich in imagery, hedged about by rigid stylistic rules.

The main rule, imposed most rigidly by the Times, is that the correction should avoid repeating the original error. The purpose is high-minded, but the effect is often exotic or comic as the author tries to characterize the nature of the mistake without letting on what exactly it was.

An example from my collection: ''A report in the Style Makers column on May 20 about Judith Neidermaier, a display designer in Chicago, misstated her role in creating mannequins shaped ++ like wooden clothespins for the Fendi boutique in New York . . .'' One could dig up the May 20 Times to learn what Ms. Neidermaier's role in the creation of mannequins shaped like wooden clothespins was wrongly alleged to have been. But how could the actual allegation compare with the options the imagination provides?

Although most Times readers, like me, may have skipped that article about ''shoes and handbags for evening,'' who could fail to be charmed by the correction (which, like most poetry, is best read aloud)?

''The affected paragraph should have read: 'Bergdorf's has Carey Adina's satin trapezoid in fuchsia, chartreuse, purple or bright blue with a jeweled clasp and a stiff handle ($425); Paloma Picasso's asymmetrical heart-shaped bag in rose or black with a golden globe on the handle ($565), and a Bergdorf-label pyramid in gold satin with a handle of gilded rope ($280).' ''

Of all corrections, the least interesting to connoisseurs are the ones addressing mere typographical errors, such as the classic missing ''not.'' But even connoisseurs are not above enjoying the slapstick effect of editing mistakes, such as the Times attributing the comment that it was ''fashionable to be racist'' to Lee Atwater instead of Spike Lee.

Last November, the Times corrected an article about former drug czar William Bennett and Rep. Charles Rangel: ''It was Mr. Bennett who called Mr. Rangel a 'gasbag,' not the other way around.''

With the jovial headline, ''OOPS!'' a hardware chain recently took space in the Washington Post to correct an earlier ad.

''This week's Hechinger circular incorrectly states on page 15, 'Free stainless steel sink with any kitchen cabinet purchase.' The HTC correct copy should read, 'Free kitchen installation videotape with purchase of 8 or more cabinets.''

''Oops,'' my eye. Despite the effort to laugh off the error as a mere typo, something more sinister is clearly going on.

It's perfectly evident what's going on in this delicious golden oldie (1984) from the Post: ''An article yesterday incorrectly identified the race of attorney Rufus King III, who was selected by President Reagan for a D.C. Superior Court judgeship. King is white.'' What I especially love about this one is the suspicion that the Reagan people may have made the same mistake.

But from the poetical point of view, the best corrections are those that totally fail in their clarifying purpose, leaving the reader more contentedly bewildered than ever. Like this one from the June Vanity Fair:

''In 'Publish and Perish' '' by Bob Colacello in the April issue, Primrose Dunlop was referred to as Primrose Potter. Primrose Dunlop's mother is Lady Potter, whose first name is also Primrose.''

Wonderful. Gilbert and Sullivan could have set it to music.

TRB is a column in The New Republic written by Michael Kinsley.

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