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The stone-cold truth about journalistic blunders

CNN. Wow.

By now, you’ve heard about the cable network’s enormous blunder last Thursday.

For a painfully long time, CNN kept insisting, wrongly, that the Supreme Court had ruled the health care law unconstitutional.

CNN’s whopper got me thinking about what was the biggest mistake I ever made as a journalist. The one I’m about to recount may not be the absolute worst, but it’s up there on the list and it’s the best story.

The tale begins, of course, with a kidney stone.

Passing a kidney stone, I’ve been reliably told, is the closest most men will ever get to the pain of childbirth. I’ve done this little trick several times.

The first time, the triage nurse in the busy ER in a D.C. hospital diagnosed my problem in two seconds.

“How do you know so quickly?” I asked.

She replied: “Honey, when a white man looks that green, it’s a kidney stone.”

The next time I passed a stone, I woke up in the middle of the night at home.

By dawn, the pain propelled me to my doctor’s, where I got a helpful shot of morphine.

The grinding pain (like someone grinding a spiky metal ball into your lower back) returned all too swiftly, though, so I went to the hospital.  There, I got another shot of sweet Sister Morphine by accident.

This constituted an overdose, and it nearly killed me. After some moments that I barely remember but my wife assures me were most nerve-wracking, I pulled through.

Stud that I am, I chose to go to work the next day, with other painkillers on board to help me ignore the stone’s final journey to freedom, which had not yet occurred.

That day’s big story was about a group of African-American parents in a suburban school district demanding that Huck Finn be pulled from the high school curriculum as a racist text.  A not unfamiliar development.

My colleagues on the Inquirer editorial board urged me to write on the topic. Right in my wheelhouse, they said.

I replied no. In my drugged state, I thought it might be better to avoid both operating heavy machinery and being a pundit. They persisted. I gave in.

I proceeded to write the standard rip-snorting editorial for when misguided people try to rip Mark Twain out of the curriculum: all about how the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is, if read right, really one of America’s great anti-racist texts, about the importance of trusting kids to cope with complexity and so on. Really fine wordsmanship.

One little problem: The next day the editorial I wrote for the lead of the Philadelphia Inquirer’s editorialpage  located the controversy in the town of Upper Darby in Delaware County. It had in fact flared in Upper DUBLIN, 20 or so miles away in Montgomery County.

Hey, Darby. Dublin. Could happen to anybody, right?  Particularly someone addled by drugs.

Try explaining that to the justifiably enraged Upper Darby schools superintendent. As I had to do the next, grim morning.

What did I learn from this debacle? Always, always triple check every proper name in everything I write. And, of course, don’t opine when you’re on Percocet.

What did CNN learn from its debacle? Well, we’ll have to see.

I hope it’s this: Second and accurate is always better than first and dead wrong.

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