This week marked the sesquicentennial of the Gettysburg Address, the most famous speech of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency. In a rare and unexpected journalistic move, the Harrisburg Patriot-News chose to recognize this occasion Nov. 14 by retracting an editorial published by its predecessor, the Patriot & Union, shortly after Lincoln gave the address. The retracted editorial referred to the address as “silly remarks” and claimed that it didn’t deserve to be remembered. In light of how the address turned out to be anything but forgettable, today’s successors of the editors responsible for this commentary decided that an apology was not enough. They formally took back the misjudging remarks as if they never should have been made.
Things often make more sense in retrospect, especially when 150 years have passed. Now, Lincoln’s speech is revered and celebrated as one of the best in the history of the United States. With historical context, and now that we can see the impact of the speech, it’s clear that it was undervalued at first. But that doesn’t change the fact that it was indeed undervalued at first. That’s an interesting part of the story, because people at the time genuinely thought that it was “silly” and should be ignored. Retracting the Gettysburg Address editorial does not erase the sentiment of that time; it is just an attempt to smooth over the feelings of the time, which we now see as misguided.
Newspapers are important historical documents that can be used not only to know what was going on during a certain time but also to understand the sentiments of the people. Newspaper content is not the same as a company mission statement or a political party platform. It’s not something that indefinitely represents the official views of an organization until amended or repealed. If it was, news organizations all over the world would need to look through their archives on a regular basis in search of anything they wrote that might not be politically correct anymore in light of recent events. Think of all the content in historical newspapers that spoke favorably of slavery and the Jim Crow laws or expressed opposition to the proposal of women’s suffrage. Must today’s journalists now take it all off the record to prove that they’re not racist or sexist?
If news organizations were expected to retract any content that appears ludicrous by today’s standards, The Triangle would be no exception. In the 1950s, our predecessors published articles that directly condoned campuswide hazing of Drexel freshmen by listing the rituals and rules that freshmen were required to follow. Obviously, we now unequivocally condemn all forms of hazing, and we regret that it was once an openly accepted part of our campus culture. Still, we can’t change the fact that it happened, and those articles in The Triangle are the only reason that our current Editorial Board is even aware that it happened.
Is there even value in retracting an article? Perhaps it displays a certain amount of respect to the now revered event as the newspaper’s current editors acknowledge the mistakes of their predecessors. There’s nothing wrong with these intentions, but a retraction is not the right way to handle this. Retractions are only meant to be used for false information that was erroneously published as if it were factual. The editorial in question here contained a judgment that proved to be very inaccurate, but because it was presented as an opinion, there is no need to retract it. It would have been sufficient just to write an editorial acknowledging the inaccuracy without any mention of a retraction.