Washington Post & Other Papers Lose 27th Amendment to the Constitution

Nearly two years ago on Newsbusters, I floated a proposal that newspapers require their editorial and other writers to police themselves for accuracy by requiring them to turn in footnotes with their copy. The process would force writers to check information they think they know that isn’t so.

Had editors at the Washington Post, Hartford Courant, Sacramento Bee and Raleigh News & Observer taken my advice, they could have prevented a howler of an error from appearing on their opinion pages this week, in which a writer and fact-checking editors at all four papers apparently forgot the existence of the 27th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

In an op-ed titled (in the Washington Post version) “Three Cheers for July 2,” writer Andrew Trees writes:

The Bill of Rights as we know it also is not what was initially proposed. The original first two amendments, one of which concerned the number of constituents each member of Congress had and one regarding congressmen’s salaries, were never ratified by the states. [Emphasis added] What we think of today as our First Amendment freedoms were actually third on the list.

Mr. Trees and his editors apparently have never heard of the 27th Amendment, proposed by Congress on September 25, 1789 as the second of Congress’s first twelve proposed amendments, and ratified 202 years later, on May 7, 1992, when Michigan became the 38th state to ratify it.

The amendment, for those who may be curious, states:

No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of representatives shall have intervened.

The Washington Post has an extra helping of egg on its face, as it covered the lead up to, adoption, and text of “the first Second Amendment” on February 1, 1987; July 28, 1991; May 14, 1992; May 17, 1992; May 19, 1992; September 12, 1999; January 1, 2001 and April 6, 2008. Had Mr. Trees been required by the Post to footnote his piece before submitting it, he might very well have found it was a Post story that set the record straight for him.

I realize writers don’t like bothering with footnotes, but — as I showed in my original post on this topic in Newsbusters when I noted major errors in a Margaret Carlson column that would easily have been caught by a footnoting process — accuracy would be improved by requiring them.

(A footnote of my own: I noticed when researching this post that when the first Second Amendment was ratified on May 7, 1992, both the Washington Post and New York Times turned to law professor Walter E. Dellinger III for expert opinion. On May 8, 1992 Richard L. Berke of the Times quoted Mr. Dellinger saying the first second amendment would not automatically take effect, because it had “simply withered and died” after it “failed to be ratified long ago.” Ten days later, U.S. Archivist Don W. Wilson formally certified the amendment. Mr. Dellinger is something of an expert on the second Second Amendment, too: He argued for the District of Columbia in the just-decided District of Columbia v. Heller gun-rights case, telling the court in oral arguments that “the Second Amendment… is expressly about the security of the State…” No luck that time, either. His client lost.)

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