Anatomy of a retraction

Last Friday the Vanguard published a retraction of an opinion column, "A city divided," by Caelan MacTavish, that had run 10 days earlier on Oct. 18.


The purpose of this column is to help readers understand the circumstances that led to the printing of the column as well as the process that led to Friday’s response. My intent is not to make excuses for the paper, but to shed light on its internal workings.

The retraction stated, "the column was not given as much editorial attention as it deserved." What does this mean? It means that we didn’t do our job. As editors our responsibility is to provide our readers with content that encourages thoughtful discourse. It is also our responsibility to help our writers to contribute constructively to that discourse.


On Oct. 17, when the Oct. 18 issue was produced, we were also on deadline for the dining guide, a 16-page special section. We were working with limited staff to complete two publications on the same night. Because of this we didn’t read MacTavish’s column as closely or as critically as we do under normal circumstances.


On a normal night, an article is read closely by the section editor, two copy editors and either the managing editor, myself, or the editor-in-chief. But on Oct. 17, due to the unusual amount of material we were dealing with, everyone was reading more copy than they could reasonably handle.


There is no question in my mind that “A city divided” should not have been published as it appeared in the paper, because it was factually inaccurate and made arrant overgeneralizations. As editors we should have helped MacTavish better support his opinion by ensuring that he cited his sources and was more specific with his language.

We at the Vanguard feel strongly about free speech and we, like all newspapers, are faced daily with making difficult decisions regarding the line between editing and censorship.


Phrases like “the Great Burning,” while a literal translation from the Greek holos (complete) and kaustos (burning), did not help support the column’s assertion that the United Nations should be centered in Jerusalem. Instead, MacTavish’s tongue-in-cheek humor clouded his argument and contributed to the flippant attitude that many readers objected to.


By erring on the side of preserving the writer’s voice we didn’t do our jobs to help him make a well-founded and thoughtful argument.


On Oct. 18, when the article was published, the Vanguard received two e-mails that pointed out the inaccuracies in MacTavish’s column. While the Vanguard receives many letters and phone calls in response to articles we run, after rereading “A city divided,” it was immediately clear that we had made a mistake in not giving the column the editorial oversight it deserved.


Although we were aware that the column deserved a response, we wanted to think through our reaction and be as thoughtful and careful as we could.


Later that week Patricia Soper Speer, the opinion editor, Matt Petrie, the editor-in-chief and I met with MacTavish to touch base about the article and talk about the paper’s response. MacTavish volunteered to write a column clarifying his statements and the factual inaccuracies in “A city divided.”


We chose not to run his response for many reasons, principally because it did not convey the message we wanted to present to our readers, but also because we felt that we needed to take responsibility as a paper for running the column and we were concerned about letting MacTavish take the rap for our failure as editors.


We decided that the best response would be a retraction accompanied by guest columns that included members of the Portland State community as well as people who had been affected by the article off campus.


Throughout the process we were torn between taking responsibility for publishing the article and trying to ameliorate its impact, especially by taking the article off of the web site. We printed the column, and we struggled over whether removing it was dishonest. In addition, we felt that the dialogue the column had sparked, especially the numerous comments on the web site, was invaluable to our readers. However, in retrospect we should have removed the article sooner and left the page up for further feedback, as we have done.


I deeply regret that the column was ever published in the form that it was, but throughout this experience it has been helpful for me to focus on two benefits. The dialogue that the article provoked was, for the most part, inspiringly constructive and thoughtful. Not only was I challenged to think deeply about the issues involved, many other people unrelated to the Vanguard were engaged in an important discourse. Also, I know that this issue has greatly educated the editorial staff of the Vanguard, and that we will continue to grow as a paper because of it.  Not only have we been spurred to be more critical and thoughtful in our editing process, we also are more keenly of our responsibility to the Portland State community