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Another year ends. Time for annual admission of errors | John Baer

Here it is, readers. My annual column fessing up to factual errors committed in during the year now ending.

A place where mistakes can be made. (Cherry)
A place where mistakes can be made. (Cherry)

Those of us with a public voice, with the privilege of opining for a living, also have a responsibility, I believe more rigid than most, to get things right — and fess up when we don’t.

So, as is my practice at the close of each year, I admit to goofs I made in columns.

I hate mistakes. Even small ones. They taint a viewpoint. They mar a message. They further crack the media’s already fragile (especially these days) credibility.

Yet, despite my efforts to achieve factual flawlessness in 2018, I made mistakes, and here they are.

In a January column on fallout from an inordinate number of retirements from the Pennsylvania legislature (though, in my view, there can never be enough), I omitted two lawmakers worthy of note.

I left out Rep. Bob Godshall, a Wharton grad and gentleman, who served Montgomery County 36 years, and Bucks County’s Scott Petri, who left the House after 14 years for the Philly Parking Authority (talk about going from pan to fire).

My error was corrected online and in print. But it was a sloppy sin of omission.

Then came a sports flub.

In May, ahead of the GOP gubernatorial primary (which now seems 10 years ago), I wrote a column asking “Do you believe in miracles?”

Could Pittsburgh lawyer Laura Ellsworth — a sensible, civil, impressive candidate, vastly outspent by her opponents — pull off a political miracle and beat Scott Wagner and Paul Mango for the party nomination?

I referred to the 1980 “Miracle on Ice,” the underdog U.S. hockey team’s upset of the Soviet team at the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y., giving sports broadcaster Al Michaels a place in history: “Do you believe in miracles?! YES!!”

But I wrote that the upset won gold for the USA. Wrong. The game was a medal-round game. And the USA did win gold. But it did so by later beating Finland.

A hockey-fan reader caught my error. I caught some time in the penalty box.

Ellsworth, of course, caught no miracle. Finished third in GOP voting.

Next came a caught-napping gaffe.

In a June piece on political polls, I wrote about a Franklin and Marshall College poll showing Tom Wolf leading Scott Wagner by 19 points, and a Wagner poll showing Wolf leading by 7 points.

The column examined methodologies and arguments supporting each poll, and noted that Nate Silver’s analytical website FiveThirtyEight grades pollsters over time. It gave F&M a B-minus and Wagner’s pollster, McLaughlin & Associates, a C-minus.

Wolf beat Wagner by 17 points.

But in mentioning Silver, I wrote that FiveThirtyEight was a New York Times gig. And it was once. But it then became an ESPN thing. And now it’s an ABC News thing. (Both networks are owned by Disney.)

In other words, I slept through two changes. Talk about needing a wake-up call as a reminder to double-check stuff one thinks one knows.

Then, in July, blooper-mania. Two mistakes in one month.

In a column on the changing U.S. Supreme Court, abortion and the governor’s race, I used a familiar phrase inaccurately.

I noted abortion seems headed back to the states. That Wagner, as state senator, cosponsored legislation to outlaw abortion a month earlier than current law. That Wolf vetoed that legislation. And since it’s likely the next governor signs or vetoes antiabortion bills, I suggested that “begs the question” of how the issue impacts the governor’s race.

I was rightly upbraided by a reader who pointed out that “begs the question” is a phrase from logic assuming a premise to be true, and that what I should have written was “raises the question.”

The reader’s right. I was wrong. I’ve banned the phrase from future columns.

The other midsummer mistake was in a column looking at Sen. Bob Casey’s accomplishments (yes, there are some).

In referring to legislation he got enacted to increase transparency in investigations of sexual assault on college campuses, I wrote that all notices of disciplinary action must go to both “victims and accusers.”

Redundant. And presumptive. Should have written “alleged victims” and “those accused of assault.”

I don’t know. Summer slump? Heat stroke?

Anyway, a new year’s coming. Another chance to shoot for factual flawlessness.

Meanwhile, cheers to all for a happy 2019.