Waiting for Correcto

In “Weirdest correction of the day,” John noted the frequent triviality of New York Times corrections. In the case under discussion last week the Times set the record straight on the photo accompanying the Times article on cat wrangling: “Because of an editing error, a caption on Saturday with an article about the service Catch Your Cat, Etc., a for-hire pet-cat catcher, described incorrectly a picture of the cat Vivian Grant hiding behind a sofa. It was taken after she had been corralled and released, not before.”

So what’s the problem with the Times’s scrupulous attention to detail? As John observed, when the Times makes corrections of such triviality, the implication is that everything else in the paper that day was right. John deduced the iron law of Times corrections: “the Times corrects errors with an alacrity that is inversely proportional to the significance of the error.” Let’s take a couple of examples.

In 1988, in the run-up to a presidential election, the Times fabricated the story that President Bush “amazed” at encountering supermarket scanners for the first time. Andrew Rosenthal’s story Rosenthal reported: “As President Bush travels the country in search of re-election, he seems unable to escape a central problem: This career politician, who has lived the cloistered life of a top Washington bureaucrat for decades, is having trouble presenting himself to the electorate as a man in touch with middle-class life.”

Rosenthal’s portrait of a president out of touch with everyday America was incredibly influential. The only problem with it was that the story wasn’t true. Rosenthal hadn’t even been present to witness Bush’s alleged amazement. He fabricated the story from a pool report. Snopes declares the story to be false, noting the tenacity with which the Times stood by the story as well as the impact that the story had. As you may recall, it fit a certain narrative.

Perhaps the best example of the phenomenon is Times reporter Walter Duranty’s reportage from the Soviet Union during the Stalin era of forced collectivization, famine and slaughter, all of which Duranty knew of and suppressed. Duranty’s biographer, S.J. Taylor, titled his life of Duranty Stalin’s Apologist. (The New York Times Book Review published a favorable review of Taylor’s book upon its publication in 1990, noting Duranty’s “outrageous coverage” of the “atrocities” that occurred during his tenure in the Soviet Union.)

When is the Times going to get around to issuing a correction—as Steve Hayward observed, a full retraction would be more just—for Duranty’s whitewashing of Stalin in the 1930′s? Andrew Stuttaford reviewed the record and called for a correction (or an apology) back in 2001. I may be mistaken, but I think we’re still waiting for Correcto.

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