Public Officials Stumble With History

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Our esteemed senior lady senators of both parties and coasts, leading the top security-related committees, seem clueless of the Cold War's last decade and its leaders and events. Noting this also offers handy platform to hit bigger failings too, from them and others.

Senate Intelligence Committee chair Dianne Feinstein, in floor tributes on Ronald Reagan's Feb. 3 centennial, said Reykjavik's "famous" summit with Mikhail Gorbachev was in October 1980 - when Reagan hadn't been elected and Gorbachev was unknown to Western publics, the Politburo's most junior. Reykjavik was famous - in 1986.

Feinstein's staff twice refused to discuss any factual error - precluding specification under my oft-applied (and oft-not, for contrast) investigative rubric: Professional, honest conduct, prerequisite to specifics. Solons, like "expert" journos and even elite specializing academics, not only often don't know what they're talking about (I've filed thousands of examples from top media alone), but show badly when contacted - too arrogant and self-protective to but spit at the subject of error, utterly contrary to pious policies and claims.

October saw a star-studded National Cathedral forum on incivility in politics, and I heard a C-SPAN rebroadcast months later. Maine Senator Susan Collins, known for civility, was a natural pick. She's also former chair, now ranking member of the Homeland Security committee; on Armed Services; Collins in the Collins-Lieberman intelligence act. She erred thickly in saying President Reagan upset "Soviet Premier Gorbachev" by calling the U.S.S.R. an "evil empire" and urging "tear(ing) down this wall."

The history:

Gorbachev was likely upset, maybe secretly partly sympathetic: After trying to reform the U.S.S.R. and winning the Nobel Peace Prize, he rode it peacefully out of existence, no minor miracle. But he wasn't in power or even on-deck when Reagan called out the "evil empire" on March 8, 1983. Yuri Andropov was. Leonid Brezhnev wasn't four months dead. Konstantin Chernenko would also rule and die before Gorbachev, then "only" a Politburo member, became Communist Party general secretary March 11, 1985.

Second, the Soviet premier was chairman of the U.S.S.R. Council of Ministers, nominally head of government (not state) - important but never supreme, always under party control, something like modern Chinese premiers or, a rough Western analogy, France's prime minister. So Collins erred even citing "premier" as boss. The term, sometimes fungible, isn't here.

Third, Gorbachev, unlike some predecessors, was never premier. Premier for most of his reign was Nikolai Ryzhkov. (Until the Soviet presidency was created in 1990 - Gorbachev was the only such president - the "president," the titular head of state, was the chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, later simply chairman of the Supreme Soviet. Gorbachev held these positions from 1988, succeeding Andrey Gromyko.)

I hoped to commend Collins at least for acknowledgment. It happens, rarely. Her staff's response, too, is minor only compared to how worse many top media, universities and officials behave when flagged for factual error. Through several staff-contact stages at the Capitol and by phone, dysfunction and decrepitude were the response. Noting I generally admire Collins (which is irrelevant) didn't help. The senator doesn't err, that's all.

Sarah Palin, ignorant? Sure - and slammed for it. Try Bill Clinton. In 2009 he erred startlingly in Vietnam War chronology on "Meet the Press;" recently he famously gained the White House podium from President Obama then said 1926 preceded Franklin Roosevelt's vice presidential run (1920) and polio (1921). Nobody remarked, either time.

The White House - which long leaves obvious errors on its own educational webpages - published Clinton's remarks without notation. From the same spot, George W. Bush's last press secretary, Dana Perino, showed abject incompetence, wondering how a Cuban Missile Crisis suddenly popped! (People remarked. She's no Bill Clinton.) Yet Obama put the foxy Fox-er on the foreign-aimed Broadcasting Board of Governors.

C-SPAN, though unique and invaluable, is part of the problem. It cites its unedited broadcasts to cover never correcting errors while dulcetly snip-narrating over speakers. But neither does it correct interviewed "top experts," let alone itself. Once C-SPAN promised correction (after announcing George Wythe signed the Constitution) - and reneged.

Among the uncorrected, rebroadcast interviews: India super-expert/official Ashley Tellis says India is two-thirds China's geographical size (Tellis doubled India's size); William Safire totally falsely conjures Jefferson's famous epitaph, ignorant of all three parts. (And C-SPAN picked that interview to honor Safire in death.)

Neither hailed sage - like many others - had a clue what he was talking about, and C-SPAN's own sages couldn't and wouldn't correct. Resist embarrassment; deny problem by omission and, when needed, commission. This is standard procedure virtually everywhere.

In time, as with other "top" outlets, I quit asking, kept filing. My vast files on media, universities, museums and more, seen publicly in only tiniest glimpses as here, when exposed will boost society's knowledge of, inter alia, itself - individual and organizational psychology around facts and competence.

Errors, let alone incompetence, seem as desperately denied as sex or money scandals. Wikileaks exposes sexy politics; I document "mere" academic error and 20-odd irresponsible, dishonest response behaviors sadly beyond the senators'.

This is one of my occasional sand-grain reports before my eventual barrel-dump. Experience informs skepticism of even "model" people in this sphere, but maybe Senators Feinstein and Collins will now respond better.

Set an example, senators.


Mark Powell specializes in documenting error. Reply to [email protected]

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