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What Mike Wright's Apology Teaches Us about Critical Analysis and Narrative Creation

For much of human history, people held a belief that the four-minute mile could not be achieved. Our bodies physically could not push ourselves to cover that distance in that amount of time.

Then, in 1954, a 25-year-old British athlete named Roger Bannister clocked a 3:59.4.

Many people didn’t believe it at first. But two months later, he did it again in a competition race in front of a crowd, barely beating Australian runner John Landry, who also broke 4 minutes in the race.

Now 1,663 athletes have done the same on record and a mile time in the three minutes, once thought to be impossible 70 years ago, is now an accepted standard for elite middle-distance runners.

Yesterday, former Chronicle-reporter-turned-political-blogger Mike Wright apologized for something he wrote. Like the four-minute mile, this action was something that I previously thought to be impossible until I saw it happen. To add to the surprise, the apology mentioned me by name.

Here’s the backstory.

Mike Wright published a piece on his blog claiming that Sheriff Mike Prendergast has budgeted a gigantic pay raise for himself in a contentious budget proposal that includes only modest raises for deputies.

The sources were emails in which the commission had directed the administration to ask about a specific $181,926 line item for “executive salaries” and the Citrus County Sheriff’s Office public information officer responding to an email from Mike Wright asking about that line item confirming that it was for the Sheriff’s salary.

Up to this point, Wright is on a good track. He found evidence from one source and got that evidence confirmed with another source. That’s what journalism should be. The problem is that it ended there.

The next logical question is “why would the Sheriff schedule such a massive pay raise for himself during this inopportune time of a controversial budget hike?”

In Mike Wright’s mind, this question was already answered so it didn’t need to be asked: the Sheriff is a megalomaniac. Thus, this behavior is consistent with his previously held beliefs.

In my mind however, the Sheriff is the opposite. The consummate public servant he is couldn’t have done something like this. Something had to be wrong.

These competing narratives led both of us to push for a better explanation than the one that had previously been published. Neither of us knew exactly what we were looking for to prove our point, but even without that information we were fully convinced of our positions because of the beliefs about the person.

In the end, the truth was that the state sets the salaries and because there has been decades of non-proportionally adjusted pay for sheriffs across the state as well as some new pro-law enforcement legislation, the state had told sheriffs to budget for a large increase that they were ultimately rewarded. This was not quite the $181,000 that CCSO had projected but it was close. Even so, the state sets the salaries.

To Mike Wright’s credit, he apologized. Some of his apology was still hedging against the Sheriff and this led some of his commenters who were unable to forego the narrative to lead to other accusations rather than accept the new information. “He should take less!” was a common assertion from the crowd.

I’ve known the Sheriff throughout several points in his career from shortly after he retired from the Army to while he was a top administrator with the state. Every step of the way, the private sector has dangled job offers worth five times what he makes in the public sector. He is making considerably less than how the market values his skills.

Seeing beyond our own biases and accepting information that contradicts the narratives we tell ourselves is not an easy skill. Studies show that the ability to do so is not based on level of education, naturally-born IQ or political persuasion. Anyone is capable of doing it, but they have to want to do it. Even more than that, they have to train themselves how.

The four-minute mile was thought to be impossible until Roger Bannister set his mind to do it. Since then, it has become the standard of what the best of the best do.

This standard in writing shouldn’t be apologizing; it should be not getting it wrong in the first place through training to step back from our own narratives and ask ourselves if something makes sense rather than rushing to ease our confirmation biases.


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