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(Credit: Patriot-News, screenshot)

The (Pennsylvania) Patriot-News’ editorial board apologized this week for calling President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address “silly” at the time that it was delivered in 1863.

Matt Zencey, The Patriot-News deputy opinion editor and author of this week’s editorial, told iMediaEthics that he wrote the editorial to “have a little fun with a less-than-stellar chapter of our newspaper’s history.” He went on:

“No, we had not received any question or complaint about our 150-year-old editorial panning the Gettysburg address. Those of us who work today under the ‘Patriot’ name know that part of the legacy we inherited is the reputation as ‘paper that panned the Gettysburg address’ during the Civil War. We thought the 150th anniversary of the Address was as good a time as any to disavow our predecessor’s dubious work. As the author, I thought the only way to do it, without sounding ponderous and self-important, was with a light, self-deprecating touch, and I thought the best way to do that was to craft it with language in the style of Lincoln.

“Really, this isn’t a question of journalism ethics, as would be the case with a serious retraction – it was more a way of using the 150th anniversary to say, with a wink, ‘Gee, can you believe what rock heads ran this outfit 150 years ago?'”

On Nov. 24, 1863, the Patriot-News, then as The Patriot & Union, “devoted all of one paragraph to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address,” the paper noted. Its report on the now-famous speech read: “We pass over the silly remarks of the President. For the credit of the nation we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them, and that they shall be no more repeated or thought of.”

So this week, the Patriot-News wrote a tongue-in-cheek editorial apologizing for its comments 150 years ago. The newspaper wrote in part

“Seven score and ten years ago, the forefathers of this media institution brought forth to its audience a judgment so flawed, so tainted by hubris, so lacking in the perspective history would bring, that it cannot remain unaddressed in our archives.”

The editorial added a formal correction statement that reads:

“In the editorial about President Abraham Lincoln’s speech delivered Nov. 19, 1863, in Gettysburg, the Patriot & Union failed to recognize its momentous importance, timeless eloquence, and lasting significance. The Patriot-News regrets the error. “

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In a separate article, the Patriot-News‘s Donald Gilliland noted that the Patriot & Union’s 1863 comments on the Gettysburg Address “has become one of the most-quoted commentaries” for critics of the paper and critics of journalists in general. He wrote:

“It also has lived on, of course, as fodder for generations of readers who disagree with Patriot-News editorials, who opine that the mental capacity and judgement of the newspaper’s aspiring opinion makers has not improved considerably since the early days.

“This infamous ‘review,’ which seems to imply the newspaper ignored the Gettysburg Address altogether, is also trotted out on occasion as evidence of how newspaper people sometimes miss history being made right in front of their notebooks.”

Gilliland added that while that Nov. 24, 1863 issue did slam the Gettysburg Address, in the days between the Gettysburg Address and the editorial, the newspaper included “considerable news coverage of Lincoln’s visit and speech.”

Update: 11/15/2013 5:07 PM EST:  The Patriot-News published a follow-up article celebrating the media coverage it has received suggesting the retraction helped the paper not only correct the record, but also may have served as a publicity stunt.

The paper noted all the attention that resulted:  “Word of the retraction went out through many channels: The Drudge Report, Romenesko blog, USA Today, Associated Press, not to mention Buzzfeed.”

It continued:  “But the strangest query might have come from Sydney Smith of iMediaEthics.”

So what were the questions we asked? We politely asked what prompted their 150-year-late retraction. Did someone complain about the old editorial?  For the old paper, such an “email inquiry smacked of a serious investigation.

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Apology for Calling Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address ‘Silly’? ‘A Little Fun’ Patriot-News tells iMediaEthics

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