Crows Are Indeed Smart Birds, But…

As a long-time student of the New York Times Corrections section, I can attest that the Times’ errors tend in a consistent direction–they favor the left over the right, Democrats over Republicans. This suggests a pattern to the paper’s failure to fact-check and exercise editorial control. But the direction of the Times’ errors can be stated more broadly: the Times is likely to err in believing a story that would finish the thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool if….” Imagine that the paper’s reporters and editors are not just liberals, but liberal stoners, and you get a clearer explanation of, for example, the famous Fantasy Island correction.

These thoughts are prompted by a correction in today’s Times; the paper evidently fell for a story about crows that have learned to use vending machines. The correction is impossible to summarize; it’s pretty opaque even when read in full. So here is the whole thing:

An article in the Year in Ideas issue [of the NYT Magazine] on Dec. 14, 2008, reported on Josh Klein, whose master’s thesis for New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program proposed “a vending machine for crows” that would enable the birds to exchange coins for peanuts. The article reported that beginning in June 2008, Klein tested the machine at the Binghamton Zoo, that the crows learned how to use it and that after a month the crows were actually scouring the ground for loose change.

The Times has since learned that Klein was never at the Binghamton Zoo, and there were no crows on display there in June 2008. He performed these experiments with captive crows in a Brooklyn apartment; he told the reporter about the Brooklyn crows but implied that his work with them was preliminary to the work at the zoo. Asked to explain these discrepancies, Klein now says he and the reporter had a misunderstanding about the zoo.

The reporter never called the zoo in Binghamton to confirm. And while the fact-checker did discuss the details with Klein, he did not call the zoo, as required under The Times’s fact-checking standards. In addition, the article said that Klein was working with graduate students at Cornell University and Binghamton University to study how wild crows make use of his machine, which does exist. Klein did get a professor at Binghamton to help him try it out twice in Ithaca, with assistance from a Binghamton graduate student, and it was not a success. Corvid experts who have since been interviewed have said that Klein’s machine is unlikely to work as intended.

These discrepancies were pointed out to The Times by the Binghamton professor several weeks after the article was published; this editors’ note was delayed for additional reporting. These details should have been discovered during the reporting and editing process. Had that happened, the article would not have been published.

It’s also worth noting that the sort of decisive repudiation we see here–“the article [should] not have been published”–occurs only when the subject is of little significance, like trained crows. It would be nice if the paper would be as straightforward about other articles it’s published despite inadequate support, like, for example, the one accusing John McCain of an affair with a lobbyist.

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