Insult, Injury, and the Washington Post Outlook Section

by Ramesh Ponnuru

The Washington Post’s Outlook section asked me to write a short article for it, added an error to my submission, published the erroneous version without running it by me, and then ran two letters to the editor rebuking me for the error — which was actually the newspaper’s. No publication has ever behaved as unprofessionally with me.

Several weeks ago, the Washington Post’s Outlook section asked me to contribute to its annual “spring cleaning” feature by arguing for getting rid of something. I chose “President’s Day.” The federal government has made the third Monday of February a national holiday marking George Washington’s birthday, but many states and retailers (especially car dealers) have made the holiday into “President’s Day” in the culture. I wrote a few paragraphs suggesting that we should reclaim the proper name of the holiday. It was a few hundred words: no big deal.

The article went through several rounds of editing. Between the last time I saw the article and its publication, however, it was changed. My original version read in relevant part: “Getting rid of President’s Day would not be difficult. All we would have to do is start calling the third Monday of February by its proper name under federal law: Washington’s Birthday. That’s the practice state governments and advertisers ought to follow.” The version the Post ended up running struck the third sentence and replaced the second with “All we would have to do is designate the third Monday of February to mark George Washington’s Birthday.” The new language is misleading, since the federal government has already made that designation, and anyone who knew the truth of the matter would think I did not know it.

I started getting e-mails correcting my supposed error, which is how I learned that the Post had screwed up. (I ended up getting about two dozen.) I sent the editor with whom I had worked a what-gives e-mail, and she responded that her colleagues had decided that their new language was more accurate than mine and that the difference was too minor to run the change by me. I sent another e-mail explaining that no, the change made the piece less accurate, but also saying I would let it go. I heard nothing back.

And I would have let it go. So the Post was too stupid to understand that it had made an error; the article was not all that important in the scheme of things. This weekend, though, the Post decided to run two letters criticizing me for the error it had inflicted on me. E.g.: “Obviously Ponnuru did not check Title 5, Section 6103, of the United States Code before he made his suggestion. There has never been a federal holiday called ‘Presidents’ Day.’ The holiday was first designated ‘Washington’s Birthday’ in 1894. It still is.”

This was really too much. I sent another e-mail complaining of this treatment over the weekend, but have again heard nothing in response. So I’m running this item to inform anyone else who might consider writing for the Post Outlook section of how it has handled this issue.

Update: A Post editor has apologized and will run a correction.

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