> Last week, Conflicts of Interest began with an error, when I misspelled my friend Dan Pavlik's name. The error made it through fact checking and copy editing. Then I saw it again as I proofed the story and yet another time when I page-checked it just before it was sent to the printer. Or rather, I didn't see it. I saw what I thought I should be seeing instead of what was actually there.
This kind of error is one of the reasons that we have fact checkers. They protect the world, which is, as Wittgenstein says, "the totality of facts, not of things," by seeking to prove the writers and editors wrong. But, they don't question what we call "reporter observation." In that great comedy of fact checking The Lifespan of a Fact—where John D'Agata and Jim Fingal, his fact checker at The Believer magazine, constantly argue over the facts in D'Agata's "poetic" essay about a young man's suicide—Fingal plays a maniacal parody of a real fact checker, hilariously traveling to Las Vegas to ensure that the sidewalk in fact does have the pattern on it that D'Agata described, while never bothering with the spelling of a name.
I could have used old Jim Fingal's help this week. Because I also said that Dan Pavlik (pictured) wore knockoff Adidas. Though they checked the spelling of that proper noun, there is no way that one of our fact checkers could have insured that this "reporter observation" was correct. And it was not. Dan Pavlik does not wear knockoffs. Dan Pavlik's Adidas are real. I know so little about shoes that I thought the name "Gazelle" on the side was the name of the brand and not a type of Adidas.
There is nothing worse than making a mistake and seeing it go all the way to print. John McIntyre's blog "You Don't Say" recently jumped into the debate about how much blame should be publicly attached to the reporter, pointing out that a half dozen of hands have a role in the final form of a piece and finding it far from practical to publicly hold each editor accountable. The issue is, in a correction, do you say: "City Paper reported that Dan Pavlik had a C in his name and wore knockoff shoes." Or do you say "Baynard Woods said . . ." In my own personal case, I prefer the latter and I wish there were something harsher to punish me when I err. When I make such a mistake, I am embarrassed to see the yellow boxes I normally love. It makes me want to hide my head in shame.
So, this week, I thought there might be a solution: a Kick-the-Can firing squad. Once, I borrowed my band's PA for another event and didn't hook the stuff back up when I got it back, so I submitted to the firing squad. I had to stand, arms outstretched, facing a wall. Everyone behind me kicked a can at me. One whizzed past my ear, but did not hit me. I suggested that the same thing happen before "Fuck What Ya Heard," the first kick-the-can throw down (which we lost, by one can, so the less said about it, the better). The band refused, because my transgression was not related to the band itself, but to the paper and an individual member of the band.
So, instead, I expiate my guilt here. But I also want to thank all of the fact checkers who have kept me from making even stupider mistakes over the years. Interns do most of our fact checking (we just hired music-writer Brandon Soderberg to work as fact-checking coordinator), so if you, too, want to keep me from making mistakes while also making your own mistakes, apply at firstname.lastname@example.org. (Leo Gray, who wrote this week's film piece, labored away for the last several weeks as we neglected, through sheer oversight, to put his name on the masthead—sorry Leo).
Of course, one way to avoid mistakes such as my "Gazelle" gaffe is to keep your remarks so general that you cannot be wrong (I knew Pavlik was wearing shoes and had I avoided any specific detail, I would have been correct). This seems to be the strategy in much of Tim Smith's Sun piece on the Sondheim finalist show at the Walters. "Vibrant works from Sondheim Prize finalists" means all of nothing. When you find a phrase like this as a headline, either the writer actually had nothing to say about the work, or the editor couldn't make any sense out of what the writer had to say about the work. It's bad enough when "vibrancy" is used to describe that elusive quality that "creatives" (I almost puke to type that word) will bring to a neighborhood. But, please, let's all avoid using it to describe actual works of art. Unless, as erstwhile CP columnist Sandy Asirvatham pointed out on my Facebook post, we are talking about sex toys, in which case, it is an important quality.