The New York Times has ignored written requests by two senior former Associated Press journalists seeking the correction of an unambiguous error published in a Times obituary three months ago.
The journalists are Richard Pyle, a Vietnam War correspondent for nearly five years and the news agency’s Saigon bureau chief from 1970-73, and Hal Buell, a retired AP vice president who for years directed the agency’s photo service.
At issue is the Times’ mischaracterization of the attack that gave rise to one of the Vietnam War’s most memorable photographs — the “napalm girl” image of June 1972.
Update: The Times publishes a sort-of correction.
The centerpiece of the photograph, taken by AP photographer Nick Ut, shows a naked child, screaming in pain as she fled an aerial napalm attack near a village in South Vietnam.
In an obituary published in May about Horst Faas — an award-winning AP photographer and editor who helped make sure Ut’s photograph moved across the agency’s wires — the Times described the image as “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 pointed out in an email sent to the Times soon after the obituary was published, the aircraft that dropped the napalm wasn’t American; it was South Vietnamese.
The newspaper’s assistant obituary editor, Peter Keepnews, replied to me on May 22, stating in an email:
“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.”
As if the aircraft’s manufacturer were a crucial element in the napalm strike by the South Vietnamese.
Quite independently of my efforts, Pyle and Buell also called the Times’ attention to the error about the napalm attack.
Their requests for a correction have been ignored, Pyle said.
Pyle shared the contents of a letter he sent by email to the Times in mid-June, in which he noted that the Faas obituary “included a serious error, asserting … that the napalm bombs were dropped by U.S. aircraft. In fact the planes were A-1 Skyraiders of the South Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF), supporting a ground operation by South Vietnamese troops, in which there was no U.S. involvement.”
Pyle, a correspondent for AP from 1960 until retiring in 2009, also wrote that he was “dismayed to see the inclusion of an error that had first cropped up in a report about Nick Ut’s photo more than a decade ago, and which has required correction on several occasions since.
“It’s a classic example of how an error in print can be ‘killed’ repeatedly but never die.”
In a joint letter sent by email to the Times on July 22 and subsequently shared with me, Pyle and Buell reiterated that the error, if left uncorrected, may harden into wide acceptance.
“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.”
They pointed out that they had separately sent letters by email to the Times but those letters “were simply ignored.” (The Times has not replied to an email I sent Wednesday, seeking comment about this matter.)
In their letter, Pyle and Buell also noted the Times’ earnest efforts to correct even minor errors and trivial lapses that creep into its columns, stating:
“Given the Times’ demonstrated commitment to correcting middle initials, transposed letters and other Lilliputian errata, it shouldn’t be asking too much for it to repair a factual error of greater magnitude.
“By clarifying this for the current record, you can also assure that it won’t be mindlessly recycled in future references to one of the Vietnam’s war’s most oft-published photo images.”
“Napalm girl” won the Pulitzer Prize in 1973 for spot news photography.
The Times’reluctance to address and correct this error evokes a couple of telling observations offered by media critic Jack Shafer, in a column for Slate in 2004.
Shafer wrote: “The rotten truth is that media organizations are better at correcting trivial errors of fact — proper spellings of last names, for example — than they are at fixing a botched story.”
He further stated:
“Individual journalists are a lot like doctors, lawyers, and pilots in that they hate to admit they were wrong no matter what the facts are.”
The Times’ unwillingness to acknowledge and correct its error about the context of the “napalm girl” image also brings to mind a sanctimonious pledge last year by the newspaper’s then-executive editor, Bill Keller.
He declared in a column in March 2011 that at the Times, “[w]e put a higher premium on accuracy than on speed or sensation. When we report information, we look hard to see if it stands up to scrutiny.”
Keller further declared that “when we get it wrong, we correct ourselves as quickly and forthrightly as possible.”
That sure sounds good. Admirable, even.
But in fulfilling those high-sounding virtues, the Times fails utterly, at least in this case. And it is arrogant and dismissive in its failure.
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