Public Enemy and the Washington Post: The correction as folk art and viral meme

A week ago the Washington Post ran the following correction:

A Nov. 26 article in the District edition of Local Living incorrectly said a Public Enemy song declared 9/11 a joke. The song refers to 911, the emergency phone number.

You don’t need to be much of a hiphop expert (I’m certainly not) to know that the Public Enemy song in question, “911 Is a Joke,” predates the attacks of 9/11/2001 (it was released in 1990) and has nothing to do with them.

The Post’s error made it look ignorant and silly — like having to say, for example, “An article incorrectly reported that ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ is a Central European folk tune. The song is actually by Queen.” But it was the straight-faced solemnity of the correction’s wording, juxtaposed with the amusement so many readers felt as they clicked on its URL, that transformed this little footnote into something bigger.

Within a couple of days, the Post’s correction had gone viral (a post from Leor Galil at TrueSlant traces the path of dissemination). It inspired an outpouring of mocking imitations on Twitter, all marked with the hashtag #washingtonpostcorrections. Here is a sample of some of the feigned cluelessness I chortled at last weekend:

MoreAndAgain: Having a baby by 50 Cent will not actually make you a millionaire

BlackCanseco CORRECTION: Despite the song, it not only rains in Southern California, it apparently snows, too.

jsmooth995 George Clinton has assured us his roof remains intact, and he takes fire safety quite seriously

phontigallo: 2Pac’s “I Get A Round” was not about the life of a bartender.

I’m not sure whether the realms of newsroom practice and pop culture have ever collided so absurdly. (Although I do recall that, once upon a time, as legend has it, New York Times style required the paper’s music critics to refer to “Mr. Loaf,” for Meat Loaf, and “Mr. Vicious,” for Sid. The former, according to the Times, is apocryphal, but the latter seems to be real.)

There was another kind of collision here: between the informal populist free-for-all online and the stiff back of old-fashioned newsroom impersonality. It would have been a lot harder for the Twitterers to make fun of the Post if, instead of having that starchy correction to parody, they’d instead read a low-key blog post by the reporter (and/or editor) responsible for the goof, saying something along the lines of “Wow, we really messed that one up — here’s how it happened. We’re really sorry.”

But no; the newsroom must wear its tie. And so instead of dialogue we have silence on one side and ridicule on the other. #washingtonpostcorrections ended up as a sort of game of the dozens in which only one of the parties played along; the other didn’t even seem to realize the game was on.

UPDATE: Craig Silverman writes about this story at Columbia Journalism Review, tracing the hashtag’s origin back to Twitter user @phontigallo — Phonte (Phonte Coleman), a member of the Grammy-nominated hip hop group Little Brother.

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  1. This infamous meme shows how the mainstream press often neglects smaller communities and cultures — and still doesn’t understand Hip Hop. To mistake 911 for 9/11, and to have such a delayed correction, emphasizes how the publication does not serve the interests of all the public. I guess some corrections are more equal than others.
    Speaking of corrections, you forgot a few of mine:
    “A report mistakenly identified Too Short as married. He’s a Player for Life.” #washingtonpostcorrections”Trey Songz was incorrectly cited as having #inventedsex.”#TigerWoods told Biz Markie “She’s just a friend” “There are only six members of the 69 Boyz” #washingtonpostcorrections
    And my favorite:
    “Gary Webb wasn’t lying, the #CIA did sell crack” #washingtonpostcorrections

    You can always get breaking news, classic one-liners or my random musics by following Reginald James @reginaldjames on Twitter.


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