Thursday, August 31, 2006

A hanging offense

The people at Annenberg Political Fact Check brought to my attention a mistake in an article I wrote for Insight magazine nearly three years ago.

My article began with this sentence: "Congressmen who willfully take action during wartime that damage morale and undermine the military are saboteurs, and should be arrested, exiled or hanged." I wrote those words. But I never said they were a Lincoln quote. A copy editor inserted quotation marks around them to make the sentence look like it had been said by President Abraham Lincoln.

I'm sure the editor thought he was trying to correct what he thought was poor punctuation. The fact is, President Lincoln never said it, and I never claimed the words were his.

When I saw the quotation marks in print, I asked a senior editor to insert a clarification in the next issue of the magazine and on the website. He never did. I unwisely failed to push the matter and went on, thinking that the magazine wasn't widely read anyway.

That was a bad move, and I should have pressed for a correction. I didn't receive any feedback at all until just over a week ago while on vacation, when Brooks Jackson at FactCheck.org contacted me about it. A candidate running against Rep. John Murtha (D-Penn.) had used the quote thinking it was real, Jackson said. So did thousands of others. Jackson told me that he found 18,000 references to the so-called quote on the Internet.

My sentence, I thought at the time, was a vivid way of summarizing what President Lincoln had said about congressmen who sabotaged the Union during the Civil War. (One of my editors, a southerner in spirit, changed my "Civil War" reference to "War Between the States." I'm from New England and have always called it the "Civil War.")

FactCheck.org researched the question with Lincoln scholars and searched Lincoln's works in an electronic database. It pointed out a factual error I had made. But FactCheck.org also made a factual error of its own by stating inaccurately that I had said that an individual had been hanged for his anti-war activism. FactCheck.org's words follow:

When we contacted Waller he said we were the first to ask him about it. He readily conceded that the quote is bogus and blamed the matter on editors at Insight magazine. Here is the pertinent portion of his reply, in full, to our emailed inquiry:

J. Michael Waller: Thank you for giving me the opportunity to correct this important issue. The supposed quote in question is not a quote at all, and I never intended it to be construed as one. It was my lead sentence in the article that a copy editor mistakenly turned into a quote by incorrectly inserting quotation marks.

Additionally, I filed my story with the lead sentence ending in the words 'Civil War,' which my southern editor switched to 'War Between the States.'

Oddly, you are the first to question me about this. I'm surprised it has been repeated as often as you say. My editors at the time didn't think it was necessary to run a correction in the following issue of the magazine, and to my knowledge we received no public comment. The magazine is no longer being published.

Again, thank you for asking about this and for providing the opportunity to correct it.

We followed up by contacting Insight's former managing editor Scott Stanley. He denied putting quote marks in Waller's copy, but said such a thing might have been done by one of six "formatting editors" at the publication, who sometimes "took liberties" with the copy. "I know Waller well enough to know that if Waller said it, he did," Stanley said. He said Waller might have put the phrase in italics, and that a formatting editor might have changed it to a direct quote by mistake, following an Insight policy of not opening a story with italicized quotes. "My guess is that somewhere along the line, somebody played with it thinking they were doing the right thing," Stanley said.

FactCheck.org also reported that I made errors of historical fact in the article. I used reprint of a letter by Abraham Lincoln from June 1863, and quoted directly from it for the article. That quote, in my view, satisfies my controversial summary.

I wrote in a note to readers at the articles conclusion: "Given the recent controversy about the authenticity of quotations attributed to President Abraham Lincoln, Insight went directly to the primary source for the presidential statements about how to deal with congressmen who sabotage the war effort. This reporter found the quotes in a June 1863 letter that President Lincoln wrote, published that year in pamphlet form as 'The Truth from an Honest Man: The Letter of the President,' by King & Baird Printers in Philadelphia and distributed by the Union League."

FactCheck.org says that I made a "vital error" in stating that Indiana lawyer-politician Lambdin Milligan, a Copperhead agitator sentenced to hang, was a member of Congress. The source I used identified Milligan as a congressman, but in re-checking today I find no other reference. FactCheck says a federal directory of former congressman shows no member by that name.

I take the point, but must note that FactCheck is flat wrong says that I wrote that Milligan was hanged. I said no such thing. I wrote that he (1) "awaited the gallows," (2) that a military commission "sentenced him to be hanged on May 19, 1865," and (3) quoted Judge Williams as saying that Milligan had been "condemned to hang." Lincoln was assassinated and the war was over before the execution date, and Milligan was not hanged.

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