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Taking note . . .

Observations about public affairs in the nation’s capital
by the editor of The Common Denominator

PERPETUATING MYTHS: Journalists sometimes refer to what they do as writing "history in a hurry" -- knowing that an account of a public event in a local newspaper may become, years down the road, the historical record of what happened. That's why it is especially important for newspapers to acknowledge and correct their factual mistakes. No newspaper is perfect, but the best among us strive to disseminate information to the public in the most accurate and fair manner that we can.

Glaring errors or ethical missteps that go uncorrected reflect on the credibility of all newspapers, unfortunately, rather than only on the few that don't own up to their mistakes. And sometimes those errors can make a difference in how the public perceives – or misperceives – an important public issue. That's why newspapers sometimes need to police their own industry by reporting others' foibles to the public. Newspapers play an important role in providing voters and other citizens with the information they need to make informed choices on matters of public policy that may affect an entire community's future.

A major myth is being perpetuated in the nation's capital by one of those factual errors being repeated Sept. 30 in The Washington Post. In a timeline highlighting Anthony Williams's tenure as mayor, the Post – no doubt, pulling the factoid from its uncorrected archives – asserts that on Feb. 28, 2001, "Officers whisk Williams away from a forum where angry residents protest plans to end inpatient services at D.C. General," four months before the city's only public hospital was closed.

The incident never happened – a fact that The Common Denominator noted on March 12, 2001, in questioning what appeared to be a partially fabricated account in the Post on March 1, 2001, of what occurred during a public forum at Union Temple Baptist Church in Anacostia. [See "Taking note," available in our free online archives at]

Yours truly attended the standing-room-only forum, as did another Common Denominator reporter, and both of us remained inside the church until almost everyone had left. Our account of what happened that night, when the mayor faced an angry community, included a Metropolitan Police spokesman and the mayor's press secretary at the time, Peggy Armstrong, both disputing the Post's account as well.

The historical record should reflect that the mayor's physical safety was never endangered during the forum, regardless of any personal fears he may have harbored from the raucous public response he received for his failure to answer questions. At the forum's conclusion, the mayor briefly lingered to chat with other panelists, then walked out to his vehicle, which drove away. No "whisking" by police officers to get the mayor away from an angry crowd – unless he was simply being "whisked" to another scheduled engagement.

Sadly, the Post has never seen fit to acknowledge this instance of fabrication that received wide attention and took on a life of its own by being repeated all day on March 1, 2001, by local all-news radio station WTOP and, no doubt, throughout the community.

Copyright 2005 The Common Denominator