My favorite mistakes

I deal with other people’s mistakes every day — often in painstaking detail — so it’s only fitting that I should give a full account of my own screw-ups.

And there are many.

Let’s start at the beginning, when I was a graduate student in Berkeley in the early 90s. They say education is wasted on the young, and I was very young — probably too young — to be pursuing a masters degree that required some life experience. At 22, I had virtually none.

I told myself that I enrolled at Cal to learn journalism, but as a practical matter, I also deferred my entry into the workforce. I took someone else’s place who could have benefitted more from the opportunity, and I feel bad about that. The silver lining: I penned my thesis on mistakes in journalism. Kind of prophetic.

For reasons that aren’t entirely clear to me, I was awarded a Fulbright scholarship after I graduated. I’m a devoted fan of Fulbright now, but it took a year in Germany for me to understand the meaning and the importance of the program. I was pretty clueless while I was there. While I don’t consider it wasted time, there are others who did more with their scholarships. I wish I had, too.

I think I became a journalist for all the wrong reasons. I admit, I liked to see my name in print. I loved giving people my opinion. Mostly, I fed on the energy of a newsroom. I was privileged to land a job at Dow Jones after graduating, and although I learned a lot about Wall Street and writing, I felt frustrated and unhappy.

I took a job at Travel Weekly, a travel trade magazine, thinking that if I could only get out of the office, I’d have a small amount of job satisfaction. Wrong again. A few years along in my career, I desperately wanted to leave my chosen profession.

But I think I stayed in journalism for all the right reasons.

I would have almost certainly given up at that point and applied to law school if I hadn’t found my way to consumer advocacy. There was no Damascene conversion that turned me into an advocate. Instead, I began dabbling in helping people in the mid-1990s by offering advice. I remember one of the cases involving an X-ray scanner and film, and I experienced a minor “Eureka” moment. I said to myself, “Aha, I can do more than write about this. I can help my readers.”

Shortly after that, I was paging through a scrapbook my mother kept from 1968, the year I was born. It contained an article from the Charlotte Observer, in which she’d written to the consumer reporter asking for help. He got a refund for her. I took that as a sign. As soon as I started helping people with their service problems, and solving them, and writing about them, I knew I was on the right path.

My best-known kerfuffles

But advocating for my readers — often passionately — also created a few problems. That tends to happen when you take sides. I think fellow Cal alum and supreme court chief justice Earl Warren put it best. “Everything I did in my life that was worthwhile,” he once said, “I caught hell for.”

✓ In 2003, USA Today canned me as an online columnist after I angrily concluded one of my articles about a bankrupt US Airways with the line, “Stories like this sure make you wish US Airways would do us all a favor and go out of business.” US Airways threatened to pull its ads from USA Today unless I was terminated. The newspaper complied. Looking back, I think everyone wishes they’d handled that one a little differently, including me.

✓ In 2006, I wrote a story about Airbus offering “standing” seats on one of its new aircraft for The New York Times. Turns out my sources were not entirely correct. The seats were real but the idea of stacking air travelers in the standing position had already been shelved by the time I reported it. In retrospect, the circumstances surrounding this snafu were pretty funny. The information about the seats started as an anecdote attached to an otherwise thoughtful and balanced story about the shrinking amount of personal space airlines give their customers. But in a seemingly endless series of rewrites by several editors, the seats became the focus of the article. Then it was bumped to the front page.

(By the way, the resulting self-flagellation would have made a devout Bianchi blush. Editors apologized to each other, one masthead-level manager apologized to me for various editorial lapses, and I apologized to everyone but my Bengal cats. I stayed at the Times for another year before moving my column to a well-regarded competitor that doesn’t take itself quite as seriously.)

✓ In 2009, I was served with a subpoena by the Department of Homeland Security, demanding that I reveal the name of a source who had provided me with a secret document detailing certain TSA security procedures. I refused to comply with the order and was prepared to go to prison to protect my source. The subpoena was dropped several days later.

✓ In 2010, I was sued for defamation by a travel agency owner who was upset over my coverage of fake travel insurance that he and other companies had been selling to unsuspecting customers. Like all other lawsuit threats before and since then, the legal complaint was unsuccessful. As a matter of fact, I covered the ins and outs of the suit so thoroughly on my site that the company probably wishes it had never heard of me.

✓ The same year, I helped found Travelers United, a Washington-based nonprofit organization that advocates for travelers. Critics have tried to paint my involvement with Travelers United as a conflict of interest. Actually, I’m very proud of the organization and its accomplishments, and I consider my involvement a complement to my consumer advocacy. I also go to great lengths to disclose this relationship wherever possible.

What, if anything, have these dust-ups taught me? It’s more or less what I advise readers every day on my site: Stay true to your convictions, don’t tolerate bullies, and avoid toxic relationships.

Listening to my critics

When they connect the darker biographical dots, my critics spin a pretty convincing storyline. They portray me as a Gen X-slacker who stumbled into consumer advocacy and exploited the misfortunes of others for personal gain. They claim I’ve inadvertently created a whole class of lazy and entitled consumers who don’t read their contracts and rely on me to get them out of a tight spot. And they would point to each of my apparent lapses and incidents as evidence that I’m not worthy of anyone’s trust and that no media outlet in the world should offer me a platform.

Interestingly, most of the people who raise substantive concerns about my work seem to have ulterior motives. Some work for companies I write about constantly. Others are consumers I couldn’t help, and are upset at me because of it. And a few publish a blog or participate in a forum that I’ve criticized for unethical behavior.

Waving my alleged errors around like a smoking gun says more about them than it does about me.

I see my meandering career path, and each of these episodes, as evidence that I am doing the right thing. I’m an idealist. I have a rescue complex. I’m searching for truth, tilting at an occasional windmill, and I’m not afraid to put myself in harm’s way to help people.

This isn’t the easy path. I mean, would you stay with your chosen profession if you were fired, sued and subpoenaed within a few short years? Would you continue to stand up for the rights of your readers even if some of them hated you?

Perhaps the great surrealist artist Salvador Dalí had the right idea. “Mistakes,” he said, “are almost always of a sacred nature. Never try to correct them.”

I won’t. Because my so-called mistakes have made me a better journalist, a better advocate — and a better person.