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Ruben Navarrette: My pledge as a journalist: I'll correct what I get wrong — but not whatever offends you

Summary: I've been asking myself: Where did that original phrasing come from? It must be my subconscious, where "conservative" has become synonymous with "nativist." In the Trump era, when Republicans who say they support legal immigration vote for bills that limit it and where the debate is dominated by racial and ethnic overtones, that was a short walk.

Ruben Navarrette column
Ruben Navarrette commentary
Tribune graphic

SAN DIEGO — Most Americans don't believe the news gatherers.

A recent poll by the global communications firm Edelman found that only 46% of Americans trust traditional media. That's the lowest figure ever recorded in the two decades that Edelman has been keeping track.

But some Americans may want the media to regain their trust. They want to know that journalists can admit when we're wrong, and that we are willing to correct mistakes.

Readers who get angry over something a columnist wrote will sometimes demand a "correction." By the way, if you're a columnist who never makes anyone angry, you ought to consider another line of work.

The rules are clear. If you get a fact wrong, you print a correction. I have no problem being wrong. I've been a happily married man for almost 20 years, so I can assure you of one thing: I'm wrong a lot, and about a good many things. Just ask my wife. She'd be glad to provide a list. In 30 years as a journalist, I've gotten plenty of things wrong. Recently, I cited what I thought was the total number of Latino lawmakers in the California legislature, and I was off by one. A correction followed.

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But one thing that opinion journalists should never correct is an opinion.

You may disagree with an insult I've fired off at a politician who shares your political ideology, or the way I characterized your town, labor union, or favorite football team.

Too bad. In journalism — mind you, that's real journalism, not that newfangled feel-good PR stuff where editors try to make it home at the end of the day without having their writers offend anyone — we don't issue corrections for hurt feelings or bruised egos or different points of view.

So imagine my surprise when — in response to my recent column about President Joe Biden's border policy — a reader pointed out what he saw as an error worthy of correction. But what got under his skin seemed to land somewhere in the gray area between "clear mistake" and "hurt feelings." The more I thought about it, the more intrigued I was by why I had written it.

The column was about immigration and how — in my opinion, based on decades of reporting on the subject — much of the anxiety that Americans feel about those who cross the U.S.-Mexico border has to do with demographics. A lot of White people — especially Republicans and supporters of former President Donald Trump — are afraid they're going to be displaced and eventually replaced.

I wrote: "Here's my message to conservatives — and other nativists."

A reader responded:

"Will you please be more careful when you slip in broad generalizations like that? You know it's not true. Not all conservatives are nativists. They come in every stripe, just as liberals, Latinos, or old people."

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He continued:

"Also, the conservatives I know favor legal immigration, seeing it as a principle of our nation, and only oppose a system that allows immigrants to cross our southern border without documentation," he wrote.

While the reader didn't ask for a correction, it was clear that he believed I got it wrong. And he cautioned me not to paint with such a broad brush in the future.

"When you use a message that harks back to chat-room hate and the Trump-is-the-devil days, you discourage some Republicans and Americans of other political stripes from reading your column, and taking it seriously," he warned.

People can read what they want, and take seriously whatever they please. I don't care about that. I'm not in a popularity contest. But I do care about language, and — in this case — mine was sloppy and careless. If I had that one to do over again, I would have written the phrase this way:

"Here's my message to conservatives — some of whom are nativists."

But that still doesn't merit a correction. Because it's an opinion, one that — while overly broad — still rings true to me given what I know about conservatives and nativists, and where the two groups overlap these days.

I've been asking myself: Where did that original phrasing come from? It must be my subconscious, where "conservative" has become synonymous with "nativist." In the Trump era, when Republicans who say they support legal immigration vote for bills that limit it and where the debate is dominated by racial and ethnic overtones, that was a short walk.

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The immigration debate is broken. If you're aching for a correction, let's start there.

Ruben Navarrette can be reached at ruben@wctrib.com.
© 2021, The Washington Post Writers Group

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