After the Friedman business, I had a brief email exchange with the fellow who answers Okrent’s email. Once it had been established beyond any remote possibility of doubt that the anecdote Friedman relayed was utterly fictional, I asked, “Can I tell my readers that a correction will be forthcoming?”
The reply, unfortunately, vanished in my email meltdown earlier this week, but to the best of my memory was as follows: “You may tell your readers that Mr. Okrent will address the issue of columnist corrections within the next two months.”
Well, he’s done so here, and it’s pretty lame.
Of course they don’t make the stuff up (at least the good ones don’t). But many do use their material in ways that veer sharply from conventional journalistic practice. The opinion writer chooses which facts to present, and which to withhold.
For instance, Tom Friedman chooses to withhold from his readers the fact that his little story about the guy who lost his job and then made a fortune selling t-shirts joking about how he lost his job…was complete and utter bullshit. Never happened.
And this just leaves me scratching my head:
But if Safire asserts that there is a “smoking gun” linking Al Qaeda to Saddam Hussein, then even David Corn’s best shots (which include many citations from Times news stories) aren’t going to prove it isn’t so. “An opinion may be wrongheaded,” Safire told me by e-mail last week, “but it is never wrong. A belief or a conviction, no matter how illogical, crackbrained or infuriating, is an idea subject to vigorous dispute but is not an assertion subject to editorial or legal correction.”
In other words, Safire just makes shit up, and the facts someone like David Corn may produce simply don’t matter.
(My opinion is that Safire’s head is embedded up his ass. Literally. Guy stumbles around doubled over, bumping into things all the time. Has to wear custom suits tailored to accomodate his peculiar condition. And since it’s my opinion, it may be wrongheaded, but it can’t be wrong.)
Shorter Times columnist correction policy: we don’t have to, nyaah nyaah nyaah.
…from Okrent’s sort-of-blog, here’s what appears to be the official policy:
None of this is meant to suggest that columnist can pick or choose which errors to correct. They are expected to correct every error. Anyone who refused to fulfill this critical obligation would not be a columnist for The New York Times very long. And none of this is meant to suggest that the editorial page editor can use the policy to duck responsibility for inaccuracies on the page. Whenever an error is brought to the attention of one of the Times editors, it goes to me, and through me to the columnist in question. These are some of the top writers in American journalism. They take their reputation for accuracy very, very seriously.
Go read this, and decide for yourself if Friedman is “ducking responsibility for inaccuries” in his column. (He has yet to issue a correction, though I am reliably informed by two different sources that he is fully aware of this little post of mine.)
Then write Okrent. And op-ed editor Gail Collins. And tell them what you think of New York Times op-ed columnists who do not, in fact, seem to “take their reputation for accuracy very, very seriously” at all.
I’m confident Ms. Collins will be sympathetic, given her own statement of principle: “It is my obligation to make sure no misstatements of fact on the editorial pages go uncorrected.”
…good email from a reader:
Agreed that the Safire assertion is bizarre. To say, “I believe there’s a link between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein,” or even simply, “There’s a link between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein” can probably meet Safire’s ‘can’t be proven wrong’ test.
But everyone knows what, “There’s a ‘smoking gun’ linking Al Qaeda to Saddam Hussein” means. “Smoking gun” is taken by any reasonable reader to be a journalistic term of art that means there’s some objective fact or even piece of physical evidence out there that anyone could examine. And that’s just not something you can state as a mere “belief” or “conviction” with nothing whatsoever to back it up.
These people are playing a cute little game with words wherein Mr. Okrent and Ms. Collins can claim concern journalistic “misstatements of fact.” But by the terms of the Safire Rule – which I take Okrent’s statement to mean it’s a view the Times endorses – hardly anything in an op-ed piece would rise to the level of a “statement of fact.” Oh, I suppose “the sun rises in the east” would constitute a statement of fact.
But then, Friedman is already clever enough to get around that problem. Thus, if he writes:
Yamini Narayanan . . responded with a revealing story: “I just read about a guy in America who says that starting next year, the sun will rise in the west. That means it will be daytime in America sooner, giving American workers a head start on the rest of the world (America being the ultimate ‘western’ country!) and thereby increasing the wealth of all Americans and erasing the hardship of any loss of jobs through offshoring!”
then the “statement of fact” isn’t about the sun rising in the west, is it? It’s only about Yamini Narayanan having read about the guy who says it will be rising in the west. Nor would we even know whether it’s Narayanan or the “guy in America” who’s making economic claims for this geophysical shift. And that probably gets to be a pointless argument pretty quickly, doesn’t it?
The bottom line is, if this is indeed the Times’ last word on this issue, then they need to run a big disclaimer above every op-ed piece that states something like:
EDITOR’S NOTICE: Even though some of the things in the following column may sound to any reasonable reader like statements of objective “fact,” everything that follows is actually nothing more than a statement of the author’s “beliefs,” which, while they may be illogical, crackbrained or infuriating, are nevertheless exempt in every respect from the Times’ error correction policy.
Now, I should think that will give every Times columnist all the latitude they could ever hope for. Of course, I won’t bother reading them anymore – except to see what kind of BS the Trolls are currently feeding on.