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Op-Ed

Have you ever been wrong?

January 13, 2023

Life is a roll of the dice. Sadness is everywhere. But if you’re looking for someone to blame for your problems, watch out!

Robert Kahn

By Robert Kahn

Deputy editor emeritus, Courthouse News

Many moons ago I taught journalism at a community college. Night classes, with a significant minority of “older” students (in their 20s, 30s and 40s), but mostly recent high school graduates, earning credits on the cheap — as who would not? — so they could transfer into a four-year college after they got their AA degree.

I told my class on Day One that their final exam would be to write a piece of investigative journalism — for which we would prepare in the weeks to come.

Do the homework, I said, but find an issue and dig into it: Report, analyze — you don’t have to “decide” — just give us the facts, as you know them, and above all, cite the sources of the alleged “facts.”

Over and over, I said, “Do not tell me you got a ‘fact’ from ‘the internet.’ Cite the source.”

For their final exam, the students had to stand up in front of the class and read their report, then take questions.

Those kids were good. One young guy investigated whether tattoo parlors were subjected to regular health inspections, and what laws — if any — governed the cleanliness and safety of tattoo parlors.

Bear in mind that this kid was all for tattoos. But he had some reasonable questions. He got an A, though we never got an answer, from the city or county or state or the feds. News reports are not judges or juries: They are history as it's being made. 

On the last exam on the last night of finals, a young mother went to the head of the class and read her article about vaccines and autism. This was decades before our hysteria today about Covid vaccines.

She said that many vaccines, including the nearly universally administered MMPR, against measles, mumps, polio and rubella, caused autism in children.

“Hold it,” I said. “What’s your source for that?”

She replied: “The internet.”

“That’s not a source,” I said. “Who posted it on the internet?”

“I don’t know.”

Pregnant pause. 

“I told you you can’t do that.” I’d told that to the whole class, every Monday night for 13 weeks. “The New York Times, at such and such a URL on the internet, is a source. ‘The internet’ is not a source.”

She went on. Many vaccines, she said, were contaminated with mercury, and that’s why …

“Hold it. What’s your source?” 

“The internet.”

She was a bright, conscientious student. How could she have failed to learn a lesson I had tried to impart every week for 13 weeks, that “the internet” is not a source for a news story?

I saw she was tearing up, and my Spidey sense tingled. “OK,” I said. “I can see you’re upset.”

I stood up from my seat in the middle of the class and as she passed by on the way to her desk I whispered, “See me after class for a minute.”

Class ended and everyone else left — glad, I assume, to be done with Mr. Kahn forever. I plopped down at a desk next to her.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “May I ask you a sort of personal question?”

She nodded, still teary-eyed.

“Do you have an autistic child?”

“Yes.”

“I’m sorry,” I said again. “I didn’t mean to be mean to you.”

She nodded. “I know.”

We chatted for a few minutes, about “sourcing,” and what it means to be “too close to the story.” I felt worse that I had upset her than I was that she had failed to learn what I had tried to teach her, week after week for 13 weeks. We parted as friends. 

I learned more that night than she did.

What did I learn? It was not: “Don’t be abrasive, Bob … don’t be yourself.” No, it was that when someone is suffering — really suffering, for years — they may look for someone to blame. Not the randomness of the universe, not just bad luck, no, they need some third party — some third entity — to blame. Why people need to do this is beyond me, but it seems to be a widespread human trait. I’ve suffered from it myself.

I don’t blame my student for swallowing bullshit on the internet, or for failing to learn an important lesson about journalism. How could I possibly “blame” her for trying to relieve her suffering?

My point? Sadness is everywhere. Life is a roll of the dice. Some people have the dice loaded for them at birth — most of us not. But 30 years after this classroom lesson, I say: If you’re looking for someone else to blame for your problems, watch out! That may not solve your problem; it may compound it, for you and other people.

Put another way: Have you ever been wrong?

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