The Times Blunders, and Corrects…Sort Of

Every once in a while you see a correction in a newspaper that doesn’t quite do justice to the magnitude of the error committed–one where the correction really should say that the article in question never should have been written. This morning’s New York Times corrections section offers an example:

An article on Saturday about a federal judge’s order regarding photographs and videotapes related to the Abu Ghraib prison scandal misstated a deadline and the response by Defense Department lawyers. The government was given until Friday to black out some identifying details in the material, not to release it. Defense Department lawyers met that deadline, but asked the court to block the public release of the materials. They did not refuse to cooperate with an order for the materials’ release.

In order to understand the magnitude of the Times’ error, you have to read the original article. As noted, it was published on Sunday, when the Times’ circulation is by far the highest. The “fact” that the Times has now corrected was the entire substance of the article. The headline on the story read: “Government Defies an Order to Release Iraq Abuse Photos.” The article began:

Lawyers for the Defense Department are refusing to cooperate with a federal judge’s order to release secret photographs and videotapes related to the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal.
The lawyers said in a letter sent to the federal court in Manhattan late Thursday that they would file a sealed brief explaining their reasons for not turning over the material, which they were to have released by yesterday.

The Times reporter, Kate Zernike, managed to locate a representive of the American Civil Liberties Union, whom she quoted in the article:

The A.C.L.U. accused the government of continuing to stonewall requests for information “of critical public interest.”
“The government chose the last possible moment to raise this argument,” said Amrit Singh, a staff lawyer with the A.C.L.U.

But Ms. Zernike quoted no representative of the government, and apparently talked to none; if she had, she would have realized that the entire premise for her story was incorrect. So millions of people were wrongly told that the “Government”–i.e., the Bush administration–had “defied” the order of a federal judge. If true, this would have been a noteworthy story. But it was a complete falsehood. What percentage of the readers who saw the Times’ headline on Sunday do you suppose read the correction in today’s paper? I’d be surprised if the number was as high as 1%.
It’s great to print corrections, but there is really no substitute for getting the story right in the first place. And it’s hard for a correction to be adequate when the fact is that the story never should have been written at all.

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