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Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Mistakes were made

On ending an old year with regret and starting a new year with hope

Issue: "News of the Year," Jan. 2, 2010

Writing in a March Washington Post op-ed about the government rescue of AIG and public anger over its credit default swaps, CEO Edward Liddy noted, "Mistakes were made at AIG, and on a scale that few could have imagined possible."

Liddy may have felt justified in going with the passive voice, given that he only came on the scene at AIG in September 2008 to fix the mess others had been creating for years. But he was stepping into a linguistic tradition long perfected in Washington.

July 14, 1991: "Obviously, some mistakes were made," said White House chief of staff John Sununu after violating White House travel rules.

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Jan. 28, 1997: "Mistakes were made here," said President Bill Clinton after he invited U.S. banking officials to Democratic fundraiser coffees held at the White House.

March 13, 2007: "Mistakes were made," said Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales regarding his dismissals of federal prosecutors.

In construction Washington political consultant William Schneider has called "the past exonerative," the phrase has acquired pedigree enough to rate a page on Wikipedia, which cites its usage all the way back to 1876 and President Ulysses S. Grant.

The passive voice, allowing a subject to admit error while dodging blame, may be acceptable for political figures but not for most of the rest of us, and especially not for journalists. Credibility is our currency, and when you catch us in a mistake in one sentence, you are likely to doubt us in the next. This is a thought that regularly wakes me in the wee morning hours of a Friday, a subconscious stirring just about the time new issues of WORLD are stacked on pallets fresh off the press, loaded and trucked to the USPS bulk mail center: Did we fix the caption date on page 35? Did we change "Barrak Obama" on page 6 to Barak? I mean, Barack?

And these are only the mistakes of spelling and carelessness, the so-called easy ones. As I looked back through our 2009 issues I'm dismayed that we made rows of those (noting how easy it is to misspell "public" then overlook its substitute, which is meant to remain private), even as I know how many, many were caught and fixed by our very experienced proofreader and editors.

I'm also dismayed by mistakes of fact, when our math is just plain wrong, when we describe someone living in a shelter when actually she was living with parents, or a "billion" becomes a "trillion" in the eyes of a tired graphic designer.

And I am most dismayed by mistakes of judgment. We made enough of those this year, including an early profile of education secretary Arne Duncan and an early review of what we now know is a nauseating television series, Flash Forward. These are sometimes the result of underreporting, of even the best writers not doing that next round of homework, and an editor failing to call them on it. They also reveal traps we too easily fall into, as when we, like other media, initially reported the June ouster of Honduran president Manuel Zelaya as "a coup" because Hillary Clinton said so.

And then there are stupid human tricks, when the copy should flow around a photo but instead flows behind it, invisible. When lines fall off a page for no apparent reason. When text changes are made but unsaved in our page layout software, hence lost. When editors resort to passive without noticing to avoid taking blame for same.

Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God! He gives us the victory. When Paul recounts his fellow Romans' hopeless imperfection and enslavement to the law he does it in the plural, but when he declares the need for rescue, he does so singularly and desperately first person. We all make mistakes, but I for one am thankful for readers who call us (usually kindly) to accountability, for an active voice to admit them, and for Jesus Christ who rescues me from the very human nature from which they spring. In the Christian life this is how the path to new life begins. In the life of a magazine it is how we face a new year with hope.
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