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The corrections
If only life’s mistakes could be fixed with a note on page two

Reading the morning paper can be a woeful affair. The war in Iraq. The sputtering economy. Mallard Fillmore. It’s a wonder that any of us make it to the Food section without hurling ourselves out the nearest window. And yet, if you know where to look for it, there is some respite to be found. In the midst of all this grimness, tucked away at the bottom of page two, is a tiny oasis of hilarity that somehow makes the pain and misery in the world seem bearable. I refer, of course, to the Boston Globe’s corrections.

There have been many wonderful corrections in the Globe over the years. "Because of an editing error, a photo accompanying a story on admitted arsonist Francis K. Fraine incorrectly identified Fraine. The photo shown was that of Francis M. Fraine, a Billerica police officer and member of the town’s School Committee." And who could forget: "A story on page two of Monday’s paper about the proliferation of errors in science textbooks itself contained an error about Newton’s laws. Sir Isaac Newton’s laws concern motion, force, mass, and acceleration." Great stuff.

Just last week, the Globe ran a correction regretting that, in a recent profile of Michael Dukakis, its reporter had misstated the date of a birthday party being held for the former governor. It seems unlikely that there will be much gnashing of teeth or beating of breasts over this blooper — "The party of the year! Get me my attorney!" Still, it’s always struck me as odd the way newspapers shrug off their mistakes like this. It seems even more odd that they would assume the same perfunctory tone of regret for botching a birthday announcement as for pointing the finger of blame at an innocent man. The Francis M. Fraine incident, you’d think, would at the very least warrant a few exclamation marks — an "Oops!", a "Shit!", or a "We’re so sorry!"

Further, the way the offending staffer is identified in these corrections seems weak to me. I’d like to see something along the lines of, "Our crime reporter, Nelson Grinkle, is, frankly, a slobbering moron who wouldn’t know a fact if it crept up behind him and ruffled those three hairs he insists on sweeping across his liver-spotted pate. He will be given a hefty kick up that fat rump of his and forced to read the entire Sunday paper from front to back. Damn him." But no. Instead, the mistake-making reporter remains incognito and — more amazingly — the mistake itself seems to just go away. "Due to an editing error, we called 80-year-old knitting enthusiast Marge Clegg a thieving, cross-dressing, child-beating libertarian with bad breath." And how does dear old Mrs. Clegg respond? "Hey, you ’fessed up to it. No problem."

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if real life were like this, if we could all retract our mistakes simply by running a correction? "Due to a severe bout of booze-fueled desperation, I gave my phone number to a woman outside the Sligo Pub last Saturday night. I should have given her the number of the local Alcoholics Anonymous chapter." Or: "Because of a morbid interest in Internet pornography, I failed to do any work at all on Friday. I regret the error." Or: "Due to a momentary lapse in concentration, I sideswiped your Mini with my Toyota Land Cruiser this morning. In fact, your driver’s-side door should be able to open without the use of a crowbar." I myself could certainly use a couple of life-cleansing mea culpas: "Because of an error in the judgment department, solid relationships, sound finances, and good health were omitted from the last few years of my life."

But it’s not only personal lives that would benefit from the occasional use of a few tepid words of regret. George W., for instance, might want to think about issuing a pre-election correction: "Due to unresolved Oedipal issues, I recently initiated a disastrous war in Iraq. Apologies to the soldier who was killed by a roadside bomb yesterday." Likewise, Keanu Reeves has some explaining to do: "Because of a producer’s error, I have been allowed to put in yet another vapid performance in another contemptible movie. In fact, I should be making a living doling out guacamole at the Crenshaw Boulevard Taco Bell." Hell, maybe there could be a "For the Record" added to the Bible: "Due to an oversight during the creation of the world, I failed to eliminate evil, pestilence, and Keanu Reeves. My bad."

But real life, of course, isn’t like this. We cannot correct our howling indiscretions, our glaring omissions, our wrecked marriages and drubbed livers. Instead we blunder through life, making mistakes and paying for them at every turn. Michael Dukakis is stuck with his failed run for the presidency — with the resulting obscurity that leads to sloppy profiles and under-attended birthday parties. Francis K. Fraine cannot change the fact that he is an admitted arsonist. The war in Iraq is on. And I cannot escape the myriad personal pratfalls that, if life were a place of employment, would have gotten me fired long ago.

So maybe what we all need is a personal editor, a nitpicky pain in the ass to correct our mistakes before they become a part of the permanent record. "Are you sure you want to buy that scratch ticket?" "You’re having another drink?" "What do you mean, ‘Till death do us part’?" But then this, too, is an impossibility, and all we are left with in the end are debilitating regrets and insufficient apologies.

Which leads us to one final correction: "Due to a reporter’s chronic grumpiness, this column has descended into mawkishness. It was meant to be funny. We regret the error."

To point out any mistakes in this column, you can reach Chris Wright at cwright[a]

Issue Date: November 14 - 20, 2003
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