Checking the facts behind an opinion

The Wall Street Journal made a mistake this week in an editorial about President Barack Obama’s recent news conference. The WSJ board questioned Obama’s use of a list of reporters to call on, suggesting that a more spontaneous session would be more in line with the new president’s pledge of openness and transparency. Here’s where the WSJ goofed:

We doubt that President Bush, who was notorious for being parsimonious with follow-ups, would have gotten away with prescreening his interlocutors.

Indeed, as documented by Glenn Greenwald at Salon, Bush used a similar list, with some reporters exiled to “Siberia,” never to be called on. It’s a practice that Bush “got away with” for eight years.

The Journal usually takes care in its word choices and phrasing. Could this mistake have been prevented? Of course. That’s where editing comes in.

Romenesko made a connection between this error and the Journal’s recent decision to close its news library. Perhaps that unfortunate move will lead to more fact errors in the paper’s news stories and editorials. But the Bush error could have been caught by a copy editor. Opinion pieces need editing too — and not just for style, punctuation and grammar. Copy editors can check facts and ask questions, just as any journalist would.

More on the editing of the editorial and op-ed pages in this interview with Burgetta Wheeler of The News & Observer.