It has taken more than three months, but the New York Times today published a sort-of correction of its erroneous description about the napalm attack in Vietnam in June 1972 that preceded the famous photograph of children terrified and wounded by the bombing.
The obituary said the photograph showed “the aftermath of one of the thousands of bombings in the countryside by American planes: a group of terror-stricken children fleeing the scene, a girl in the middle of the group screaming and naked, her clothes incinerated by burning napalm.”
But as I, and others, pointed out to the Times, the napalm was not dropped by the American military but by the South Vietnamese Air Force.
In response to my email sent in May about that lapse, the Times’ correction expert on its obituary staff, Peter Keepnews, wrote:
“You are correct that the bombing in question was conducted by the South Vietnamese Air Force. However, the obituary referred only to ‘American planes,’ and there does not seem to be any doubt that this plane was American –- a Douglas A-1 Skyraider, to be precise.”
Of course, the aircraft’s manufacturer was hardly at issue. And in the sort-of correction published today, the Times removed the reference to “American planes” in the digital version of the obituary but otherwise embraced Keepnews’ convoluted reasoning, stating:
“While the planes that carried out that attack were ‘American planes’ in the sense that they were made in the United States, they were flown by the South Vietnamese Air Force, not by American forces.”
Which makes for a less-than-clean correction.
Indeed, the correction seems begrudging, half-hearted.
And less than sincere.
It’s as if the Times were saying the South Vietnamese Air Force was doing the dirty work for the American military — which by June 1972 was decidedly winding down its war effort in Vietnam.
Richard Pyle, a retired veteran AP correspondent who was the news agency’s Saigon bureau chief from 1970-73, characterized the Times’ correction this way:
“[T]he phrasing — ‘while the planes that carried out the attack were “American planes” in the sense that they were made in the United States, they were flown by the South Vietnamese Air Force, not American forces’ — makes it sound like a bunch of teenagers borrowing daddy’s car.”
Pyle, who retired from AP in 2009, also had petitioned the Times for a correction in the Faas obituary. So had Hal Buell, a retired AP vice president who for years directed the news agency’s photo service.
In July, they sent a joint letter by email to the Times, pointing to the very real prospect that the error, if left uncorrected, could solidify into wide acceptance.
They wrote: “Our larger concern, beyond amending the immediate record, is that if left standing, this error will be repeated in future by the Times and any publications that might rely on it as a source, in effect causing a significant piece of misinformation to be cast in journalistic stone.”
The Times’ sort-of correction muddies rather than clarifies or fully corrects. The concerns that Pyle and Buell addressed are hardly set to rest.
The sort-of correction is disappointing, too, in light of the praise that the Times’ outgoing public editor, Arthur Brisbane, offered Sunday about the newspaper’s corrections staff.
Brisbane extolled the Times’ corrections desk as “a powerful engine of accountability” unmatched by similar operations at other U.S. news organizations.
The sort-of correction published today mocks such extravagant praise.
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