The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Monday, February 23, 2004

Yet another unfathomable rule of journalism: NY Times op-ed corrections

Last time (February 12), it was matters arising from Michael Massing's piece on Judith Miller's WMD coverage.

But a piece in Salon by former 60 Minutes producer Barry Lando on the excesses of Times op-ed merchant William Safire yields another.

Lando looks at Safire's treatment of the infamous Douglas Feith memo that was leaked to the Weekly Standard which supposedly gave proof that Saddam and bin Laden were bosom buds; various stories about supposed French government collusion in WMD-related shipments to Iraq; and the Mohamed Atta-Prague business.

It looks likely that there's plenty factually wrong with at least some of Safire's pieces on these topics.

The point is, however, that, even if there were the most monstrous howler imaginable, the Times would not judge itself responsible for making the appropriate correction.

As Lando puts it, the Times is
a paper that regularly runs a "Corrections Box" to fess up to the most picayune of inaccuracies, from an incorrect middle initial to the misspelling of a company name -- but not to innuendo and error on its Op-Ed page.

It's a view of editorial responsibility that one could not have divined a priori. If a Safire piece were defamatory, or infringed some sort of national security law, the NYTC as publishers would be responsible, clearly. So why the distinction on a practical/ethical level?

We may get a clue from last year's controversy over Daniel Weintraub's blog at the Sacramento Bee. The suggestion was that the newsroom were collectively huffy about some of Weintraub's output - he was scooping them, or some such nonsense - and a mob was formed to pressure the Bee management to curb him.

If this is right - and I have no intention of researching the point - the Weintraub incident would be yet another example of the absurd and other-worldly dichotomy maintained in the warped minds of American journos between news and opinion.

And the Times policy on op-ed content seems informed by a similar notion: viewing op-ed as the last vials in existence of the dread scourge of the Yellow Press (Hearst, and later Colonel McCormick) that must be hermetically sealed from the bright and wholesome world of News.

If it were needed - which it wasn't - the Safire case illustrates just what a will-of-the-wisp the distinction (an expression of the Great God objective journalism, natch) is in practice. In order to comment, he first has to bring in facts on which to comment; and when statements are made as true in his columns, they automatically receive the New York Times seal of approval, at least in the opinion of the layman [1].

The issue of op-ed exceptionalism is one that ombud Daniel Okrent has on his to-do list - according to his February 15 piece.

  1. One question here is the status of analysis pieces carried in news sections of newspapers. The main point of such pieces is for the expert journo to review the facts as presented, and give us the benefit of his - well, opinion on them.

    How is that to be distinguished from what Safire does? (Who said 'Competence'...?)

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