Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, offers a smug and sanctimonious commentary today, asserting that the newspaper strives “to be impartial” and corrects its errors “as quickly and forthrightly as possible.”
Whether the Times is impartial open to serious debate. What interests Media Myth Alert is Keller’s claim that the Times strives for promptness in correcting errors — even to the point of seeming a bit absurd in doing so.
Keller wrote that “when we get it wrong, we correct ourselves as quickly and forthrightly as possible. Connoisseurs of penitence find The Times a bottomless source of amusement. (An actual correction: ‘An article in The Times Magazine last Sunday about Ivana Trump and her spending habits misstated the number of bras she buys. It is two dozen black, two dozen beige and two dozen white, not two thousand of each.’)”
But the policy of publishing a prompt and forthright correction certainly hasn’t been followed in the matter of a correction the Times flubbed two months ago — a lapse that I brought to the attention of the newspaper and its public editor, or ombudsman.
Granted, correcting a correction can be complicated and muddy.
But still: If the policy is to “correct ourselves as quickly and forthrightly as possible,” then there’s no reason for the newspaper not to have addressed by now a correction that it so clearly flubbed.
The correction in question was published January 23, 2011; in it, the Times sought to set straight its mistake in a “Week in Review” article of the week before, which referred to the dramatic exchange at during a Senate hearing in 1954, in which the lawyer Joseph N. Welch skewered Senator Joseph McCarthy and his communists-in-government witch-hunt by declaring:
“Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”
The Times sought to set straight the context and circumstances of Welch’s memorable remarks, which came during the so-called Army-McCarthy hearings. The Times stated in its correction:
“Senator McCarthy was serving on the committee investigating suspected Communist infiltration of the Army; he was not at the hearings to testify.”
Which was incorrect on two counts, as I pointed out.
McCarthy wasn’t serving on that Senate panel (which in fact was a subcommittee — a temporary subcommittee of the Senate permanent subcommittee on investigations). And McCarthy was at the hearing to testify.
As I wrote in calling attention to the flubbed correction:
“Had the Times consulted its back issues, it would have found that not long after Welch’s pointed questions about McCarthy’s ‘sense of decency,’ the senator was sworn in as a witness.”
According to hearing excerpts the Times published at the time, McCarthy said upon being sworn in:
“Well, I’ve got a good hog-calling voice, Mr. Chairman. I think I can speak loudly enough so that the mikes will pick it up.”
To date, the Times has not corrected its flubbed correction.
So why does it matter? After all, 1954 was a long time ago.
It matters because the Army-McCarthy hearings were an important moment in Cold War America. A newspaper as important — and self-important — as the Times should be expected to get straight the details about a memorable and dramatic occasion.
It also matters because of Keller’s smug assurance that the Times corrects its errors “as quickly and forthrightly as possible.”
Surely, if the Times deigns it important to set the record straight about Ivana Trump’s bras, it ought to fix its flawed correction about the Army-McCarthy hearings.
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