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Amidst all of the layoffs, reorganizations and personnel moves at the Washington Post, one can only hope someone there has left a dictionary for the reporters and editorial staff to consult. That’s what I thought after I read the Post’s January 1 front-page story, TSA nominee misled Congress about accessing confidential records.

In the article, Post reporter Robert O’Harrow chronicles TSA Administrator-nominee Erroll Southers’ clarification of testimony he presented during his confirmation hearings before two Senate Committees last year. During the confirmation process, he shared that he had accessed a database to gain information on his estranged wife’s new boyfriend over twenty years ago when he was with the FBI – an action for which he was reprimanded and disclosed to the Senate.

If all you read was the headline, you may think Erroll Southers was some rogue who knowingly went out and lied to Congress for some nefarious purpose.

If you read the whole story though, the Post’s use of the word “misled” is a real-stretch.

Either the author and his editors were trying to compete with the Washington Examiner for incendiary headlines so as to grab the attention of readers for its print and on-line editions, or they didn’t know the meaning of the word “misled.”

The fact is that the headline did not match the story, but in an era of “jingo-istic journalism,” where hype and attention grabbing words matter more than the presented facts, the Post’s choice of headline was really poor and misrepresented the facts.

Unlike many current and former Members of Congress, as well as previous and current Administration leaders, when confronted with facts to correct the record, Southers didn’t look to split hairs on his testimony or try and misconstrue facts to tell us the meaning of the word “is.”

Relying on his memory of a circumstance that occurred more than twenty-years ago, he presented the facts as he knew them. When he acquired other information he didn’t have available when he made his first statement, he stepped forward to correct the record. He didn’t engage in some sort of cover-up or orchestrate some type of Washington “spin” about what he said. He just corrected the record. Period.

If that’s what he did, how could he have “misled Congress?”

I thought if you “misled” someone, you purposely went out of your way to do something to deceive them. Based on O’Harrow’s own article, what he describes is a man correcting the record based upon new details and information. Where’s the deception in that?

Maybe in the midst of the holidays, the Post found a new definition for “misled.” Web-savvy as I am, I went to Dictionary.com to see what the word means. Here is what I found:

Mislead

–verb (used with object)
1. to lead or guide wrongly; lead astray.
2. to lead into error of conduct, thought, or judgment.
-verb (used without object)
3. to be misleading; tend to deceive: vague directions that often mislead.

I can only hope that as Washington really becomes a one-newspaper town (since the Washington Times is nearing extinction and the Washington Examiner is… well that’s another topic), the Post will think about improving their ability to better match its headlines with its stories.

Misconstrued and attention grabbing headlines can often lend themselves to character assassination, and this is one case where the facts about Erroll Southers don’t bear his being misrepresented to the Post’s readers or to the American public.

To do so would be “misleading,” and good journalistic practice shouldn’t do that.

Rich Cooper blog primarily on emergency preparedness and response, management issues related to the Department of Homeland Security, and the private sector’s role in homeland security. Read More
  • dandunkel

    Rich,

    Thanks for pointing this out. I am amazed how someone as qualified as Erroll Southers can be on the sidelines when the game situation dictates how our nation would benefit from his leadership at TSA.

    Keep up the good work.

  • S.Dillon

    Erroll didn't correct the info until AFTER the vote of the committee and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine)request of clarification of the censure he received from the FBI in 1988 on Tuesday, November 19. Southers worked as an FBI special agent from 1984 to 1988. In an affidavit, Southers admitted to Congress that he was censured by the FBI in 1988 for using his position to gain access to data about his ex-wife's new boyfriend. He claimed that he had asked a co-worker's husband who worked for the police to run the database search. When Senator Collins asked Southers whether this was the only case in which he engaged in this serious abuse, he testified that it was. He told lawmakers Tuesday that he left the FBI about six months after the censure for unrelated reasons. On November 20, Southers sent the letter to Senators Collins and Lieberman correcting the record stating that he not the co-worker's husband had run two checks on the man. I call that lying under oath.

  • I was contracted by LAWA, (LAX P.D.), while Erroll Southers was Asst.Chief there. I had a good number of professional dealings with him. I was very impressed by his integrity, competence and overall leadership capabilities. I wish there more people in our govt. like him working for us.
    Mike Herstik

  • Ken

    From the Post article, “he recalled that he had twice conducted the database searches himself, downloaded confidential law enforcement records about his wife's boyfriend and passed information on to the police department employee”. This was grossly different from his testimony. According to your article he corrected the record “when confronted with facts”.

    That is the meaning of “mislead” (and the meaning of “oops, I got caught”).