Out There: Playing 'Gotcha'

More people are aware of an error in a newspaper than when a plumber messes up someone's pipes.

herb keinon (photo credit: )
herb keinon
(photo credit: )
It's a great way to make a living, being a journalist. Sure, the president hates us (not without cause), my kids' rabbis talk against us (not without justification), and most of the public doesn't trust us (not without reason). But all in all, there are few jobs as stimulating, fresh and intoxicating as being a journalist. Which doesn't mean it's a bed of roses. The hours are tough, the stress is intense, and the deadlines are deadly. But that's all manageable stuff they warn you about in journalism school. What they don't tell you about in Journalism 101 are the hidden challenges that are as much a part of the job as the semi-colon. First there are the mistakes. People in every profession make mistakes - waiters, tour guides, teachers, lawyers, even doctors. But if the waiter makes a mistake and the food comes to the table cold, the only person who really knows is the unhappy diner. If a tour guide makes a mistake and tells you that Abraham slept on one hill, when in fact he pitched his tent two hills down the road, you'll never know the difference. Teachers give their students wrong information all the time; lawyers give bad advice that can land people in jail; and doctors make mistakes that actually kill their patients. But all those mistakes are private. Not so with journalism. No, sir. Dangle a participle, split an infinitive, mix a metaphor, use the wrong word - and that error is out there for the entire world to see, naked as a jaybird. Or at least for all the papers' readers to see, or at least all those readers who managed to get through to the bottom of that particular piece. In any event, more people are aware of an error in a newspaper than when a plumber makes a mistake and messes up someone's pipes. And I've come to realize over the years that the public, which likes journalists less and less all the time, takes delight in pointing out these mistakes. Especially in this country, where so much of how we act is an adaptation of how Jews have behaved in the synagogue for centuries. IN THE confines of the synagogue, for instance, mistakes are pounced on with vigor. Lead the prayers and mispronounce a word, and nine times out of 10 someone will come up afterward and put you in your place. Walk into most synagogues in this country on Shabbat, and even though two men are standing on either side of the Torah reader for the express purpose of discreetly correcting his errors, if the unfortunate man stumbles over a word, someone in the congregation will inevitably shout out - with no gentility whatsoever - the right pronunciation. It's a gleeful game of "Gotcha." And catching journalists out in grammatical or factual errors is nothing more than "Gotcha" played on a different field. In an innocuous article a few months ago about the appointment of Israel's new ambassador to Britain, I wrote that a foreign ministry official had been appointed to that "lucrative" post. Wrong word. Bad mistake. Mea culpa. I should have known better. It didn't take 12 hours for an e-mail to be sent to the editorial offices by a diligent reader who hoped "that the ambassador-designate has better proficiency in English-language usage than Keinon apparently has, unless there is extra pay paid 'off the books.'" Perhaps, the forgiving reader opined, "Keinon meant 'prestigious' and misspelled it as 'lucrative.'" Another charming part of the job is accountability for others' mistakes. I can't count the number of times people have come up to me - at social gatherings, doctor's offices, parents-teachers meetings - and complained about something in the paper I have no control over whatsoever: late delivery, a picture poorly cropped, a bad headline, faulty logic in someone else's story, a recipe that yielded sorry-tasting brownies, an inaccurate television schedule. It's like me meeting a Jerusalem Egged driver and blaming him for a late bus from Kiryat Shmona; or going to the beach and yelling at the lifeguard because there is too much sand. It's just not done, but for some reason people feel this is their right when it comes to newspapers. Moreover, people also believe a journalist's place of employment is fair game for all criticism and insult, no matter how indelicate. I can meet total strangers who - when they hear how I earn my living - will mercilessly rip into the paper. It's too Left, it's too Right; it's too thick, it's too thin; the writers are dumb, the editors can't spell. As if I don't work there, as if I have no feelings, as if for some reason I must take no pride in my place of employment. ONCE, A few years back, I'd simply had enough. I was introduced at a bat mitzva reception to a complete stranger, who inexplicably felt comfortable enough with me to immediately harangue me about the paper. Then, to top it off, he told me he had stopped reading it. "Where do you work?" I asked. After being told he was a lecturer at Ben-Gurion University's Jewish philosophy department, I geared up. "Really," I said. "That's very interesting. I hear that department stinks. I hear the professors are second-rate, that the research is shoddy. Horrible place. I wouldn't take a course there if it were the last Jewish philosophy department on the planet." Granted, it wasn't my most mature moment. But the man got the point, and I was able to walk away - gleefully muttering "Gotcha" under my breath.