Journalists love reporting that Americans are stupid, and they salivate at the thought of asking us to find the United States on a map or who we fought in the American Revolution. That's why it is rather amusing that the Los Angeles Times mistakenly claimed that George Washington only served one term in office as US president.
LAT television critic Mary McNamara made the slip up in this April 19 article about HBO's surge in popularity when she began describing the cable network's “John Adams” miniseries (via Patterico) (all bold mine):
In his portrayal of our second president, Paul Giamatti creates a man perpetually dissatisfied, disgusted by the preening ambition of politics even as he is infected by it... [S]etting up a new government is a bureaucratic nightmare, with oversized personalities disagreeing over things both petty and fundamental. George Washington (David Morse) so quickly tired of the infighting among his Cabinet and vagaries of public opinion that he stepped down from the presidency after a single term. "I know now what it is like to be disliked," he says to Adams, his perpetually disliked vice president.
How could this glaring mistake squeeze by an LAT fact checker? Perhaps with the paper's budget cuts and reduced staff, the Times doesn't waste resources fact checking articles about television shows.
What's amusing about this gaffe is that Washington established the tradition of presidents limiting their time in office to two terms. He believed it was important that presidents not become de facto monarchs, so he declined to stay in office beyond his second term. Successive presidents voluntarily followed Washington's unofficial standard until Franklin D. Roosevelt spent four terms as Commander in Chief. FDR's extended stay in office prompted the passing of the 22nd Amendment, which restricts presidents to a total of two elected terms as well as two more years of an unelected term.
Blogger Patterico gave McNamara the benefit of the doubt, wondering if HBO had made a mistake and depicted Washington as only having served one term. However, according to Big Lizard blogger Dafydd ab Hugh, the miniseries got the history correct, but the way that Washington's story was told was somewhat misleading and might have resulted in McNamara's confusion:
The HBO miniseries presumes throughout that viewers have some basic knowledge of colonial and early American history...Ergo, it doesn't bang you over the head with irrelevancies... such as Washington's 1792 reelection.
They don't bother showing it: Nobody "ran" for president back then, as you know; the electors were chosen by the states and sent to the capitol (Philadelphia, in Washington's case) to cast their votes. Washington was unanimously elected in 1788 and again in 1792... so with no campaign and no competition, and since the focus is on John Adams anyway, not GW, the miniseries doesn't even mention the election.
Based on ab Hugh's description, it seems that if McNamara was unaware that Washington served not one, but two terms before she watched "John Adams," then the miniseries's vagueness about that first term might have confused her. Regardless why it happened, a fact checker should have caught the mistake.
At least this significant gaffe was in the entertainment section. Unfortunately, it is part of a string of mistakes (at times without a correction), false statements and retractions, including the recent embarrassment where an LAT reporter used fabricated documents to accuse Sean "Diddy" Combs of ordering the murder of '90s rapper Tupac Shakur.
Everyone makes mistakes, but with each occurrence, the Times's reputation suffers, which doesn't help its rocky financial condition.
***UPDATED 04/22: Mary McNamara added an online correction to her article April 21 and also ran a correction in the print edition April 22. It's easier to make mistakes like this than many readers would expect, and McNamara didn't just correct the original article; she turned it into an amusing short piece that hinted at the scope of reader response:
For the six or seven people living in the Los Angeles Basin who did not e-mail to correct me, he served two terms, not one. And my daddy was a history teacher! Ever since the first e-mail hit my box (on Friday afternoon, about two seconds after the story went up on the website), I have been bathed in hot shame. But I want to thank you, well, most of you, for the gentle tone you took -- most clever subject line award goes to: Is a TV Critic Smarter Than a 5th Grader? -- though I certainly deserved all those incredulous exclamation marks as well. And yes, I did go to college. Graduated even.
Read the whole mea culpa.
*Official portrait via WhiteHouse.gov
Lynn contributes to NewsBusters. Email her at tvisgoodforyou2-at-y a h o o-dot-c o m