Jul 29, 2022

Think Twice Before Demanding Corrections

Today’s sermon: Righteous indignation can easily backfire.

By Ed Goldman

Just as an attorney may try to talk down a furious client from wanting to sue everyone in sight, I’ve often advised my marketing and public relations clients who, somewhat apoplectically, want me to demand a correction from a news outlet they feel has wronged them that doing so may not actually be in their best interest.

I speak from experience.

Edgy Cartoon

The Hell Desk

In January of 1984, my position as an assistant director of the UC Davis Medical Center was eliminated by the new CEO on his first day on the job (possibly, during his first half-hour). This was because he had a rather excessive distaste for me—possibly owing to my having called him, when he was the hospital’s deputy director, “an arresting blend of arrogance, pomposity and fatuousness” at an administrative staff meeting. This occurred early in my tenure. I’d been brought on board to try to help the institution dig itself out of a PR black hole.

What had made my remark especially irksome was that, while calling him out for his complete ignorance on dealing with reporters, it also satirized his self-image as something of a wine connoisseur. I was being a bit of a stinker, as my mom often characterized me (followed by her shaking her head and laughing, I’d like to add—or wish to remember).

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So I didn’t really blame him for not wanting me around when he ascended to the job of Big Boss. But he was powerless to fire me because I had a file filled with positive evaluations. What he could do was “re-organize” my department, which is how he got me out the door.

A few days later, the Sacramento Bee ran a short item headlined “Med Center Fires Spokesman.” I was, as you can imagine, upset, thinking the item could hurt my chances of future employment. At the time, I had no idea that it’d be 38 years before I was to re-enter the job market, where I remained for only three weeks. 

So I went to the Bee, sat down with the then-managing editor (he’s since left the job and, I believe, the planet) and said I hadn’t been fired, that my job had itself been deleted. He said he’d give that some thought; three weeks later, the paper ran a tiny correction which said, as I recall, “The Bee erred in reporting that UCD spokesman Ed Goldman has been fired. His position was eliminated.”

I was annoyed at how long it took to appear, how flaccid it was as an apology but glad I was no longer tainted by having been canned.

That’s when things headed south, as omnidirectional people like to say. 

I started receiving phone calls, letters and faxes (emailing and texting weren’t yet in common use), all expressing sympathy for my having been fired. As I learned, far more people habitually read the corrections box in the newspaper than the initial stories they were supposed to clarify, emend or atone for. What’s more, they didn’t even read the corrections very closely, since the people who contacted me misunderstood that I hadn’t been axed, my job had.

So if you’re wronged (but not horribly) by a media item about you, I would urge you to take a deep breath, assess the genuine damage (if any) and decide whether it’s worth it to give the item another turn. This also holds in matters of defamation and libel, when the burden of proof is on you to prove you didn’t do or say what you were alleged to have done or said. Chances are, anyone who noticed the item will soon forget having seen it. The news cycle pedals very fast.

By the way, this little rant has nothing to do with this column. I love to atone for my sins more than annually, as is prescribed by my religion. So if I unintentionally slander you or someone you know, do let me know—though you may find it difficult to prove I didn’tmean to do it. I’m apparently still a bit of a stinker.

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Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).