W. Joseph Campbell

Pardon the scoffing: NYT corrections desk is ‘a powerful engine of accountability’?

In Error, New York Times, Photographs on August 26, 2012 at 11:49 am

The swan song column of Arthur Brisbane, the New York Times public editor, salutes the newspaper’s corrections desk as “a powerful engine of accountability” unmatched by similar operations elsewhere.

Brisbane salutes ‘powerful engine of accountability’ (NYTimes photo)

Pardon my scoffing: A “powerful engine of accountability”?

The Times has been often and rightly lampooned for obsessing over trivial lapses while ignoring far more consequential missteps — as suggested by its ignoring repeated recent requests to correct its unambiguous error about the context of the famous “napalm girl” photograph taken in Vietnam in June 1972.

The image, taken by Associated Press photographer Nick Ut, shows a naked child, screaming in pain as she fled an aerial napalm attack near a village in South Vietnam. The photograph won a Pulitzer Prize and remains one of the most memorable images of the Vietnam War.

In an obituary published in May, the Times referred to the image as showing “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 has been repeatedly pointed out to the Times, the plane that dropped the napalm wasn’t American; it was South Vietnamese.

Among those who’ve called attention to the Times’ error are two senior former Associated Press journalists, Richard Pyle, the news agency’s Saigon bureau chief from 1970-73, and Hal Buell, a retired AP vice president.

Both men have petitioned the Times for a correction, stating in a joint letter sent last month by email:

“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.”

Pyle and Buell also pointed to the Times’ inclination to police its minor errors, writing:

“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.”

But the “powerful engine of accountability” hasn’t deigned to address the error, which insinuates that the U.S. military was responsible for the attack that preceded Ut’s “napalm girl” photograph.

By June 1972, however, most U.S. combat units had been removed from South Vietnam. For the American military, the war then was winding down.

Pyle and Buell, jointly and individually, have sought a correction, addressing email to Brisbane’s desk and elsewhere at the Times. I, too, have pointed out the Times’ lapse and in May received this frankly illogical reply from the newspaper’s assistant obituary editor, Peter Keepnews:

“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 vital to the napalm strike by the South Vietnamese.

The Times’ failure to address the error hints at limited viewpoint diversity in the newsroom, a topic that Brisbane points to in his swan song.

He writes:

“Across the paper’s many departments … so many share a kind of political and cultural progressivism — for lack of a better term — that this worldview virtually bleeds through the fabric of The Times.

“As a result,” Brisbane states, “developments like the Occupy movement and gay marriage seem almost to erupt in The Times, overloved and undermanaged, more like causes than news subjects.”

That description prompted a rebuke from the Times’ executive editor, Jill Abramson. But it’s a telling and doubtless accurate observation that Brisbane ought to have made more often during his two-year tenure as “public editor,” or internal critic.

Brisbane’s comment about “political and cultural progressivism” evokes an observation by the Times’ first ombudsman, Daniel Okrent. In a column in 2004, Okrent addressed what he called “the flammable stuff that ignites the [political] right. These are the social issues: gay rights, gun control, abortion and environmental regulation, among others.

“And if you think The Times plays it down the middle on any of them, you’ve been reading the paper with your eyes closed.”

Brisbane’s comment also is evocative of one of the final columns that Deborah Howell wrote as ombudsman at the Washington Post.

She acknowledged in mid-November 2008 that “some of the conservatives’ complaints about a liberal tilt [in mainstream journalism] are valid. Journalism naturally draws liberals; we like to change the world. I’ll bet that most Post journalists voted for Obama. I did.”

She also wrote:

“There are centrists at The Post as well. But the conservatives I know here feel so outnumbered that they don’t even want to be quoted by name in a memo.”

Howell’s column quoted the director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, Tom Rosenstiel, as saying:

“The perception of liberal bias is a problem by itself for the news media. It’s not okay to dismiss it. Conservatives who think the press is deliberately trying to help Democrats are wrong. But conservatives are right that journalism has too many liberals and not enough conservatives. It’s inconceivable that that is irrelevant.”

I argue in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, that viewpoint diversity and contrarian thinking should be vigorously promoted in American newsrooms.

But the ideological imbalance of mainstream American journalism never receives much more than passing attention in mainstream American journalism.

It’s little wonder, then, that the believability quotient of leading U.S. news media continues to ebb: There’s a keen sense that they’re not dealing it straight.

According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, 14 percent of respondents said they said believed “all or most” of what the Times has to say.


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