June 9, 2003
Mr. Joseph Lelyveld
Interim Executive Editor
New York Times
229 W. 43rd Street
New York NY 10036
Dear Mr. Lelyveld,
I would like to draw your attention to a matter of journalistic ethics at the New York Times. There is a need for the newspaper to assure that facts, statistics, sources, and quotations presented in editorials and op-eds be just as accurate as those presented in news stories.
If a Jayson Blair were writing an editorial or op-ed, there would be no ethical requirement that it be balanced or neutral with respect to its political point of view, and I would defend to the death his right to take any point of view the Times wished to publish. But the editorial or op-ed formats would give someone like Blair no greater ethical scope to plagiarize, lie, fabricate sources, imagine quotations, or distort quotations than he would have had as the author of a news story.
The standards of truthfulness in the Times’s editorials and op-eds, under the leadership of Howell Raines, declined to a point that would be seen as unacceptable on the news side — especially in this present period of heightened scrutiny. One op-ed columnist in particular, Paul Krugman, has consistently been at the leading edge of this decline. I will be happy to admit up-front that I am very opposed to Mr. Krugman’s political point of view, but that does not change the fact that he has repeatedly violated the most basic standards of accuracy and truthfulness.
Please take the time to consider some examples from his most recent column, published Friday, June 6, the first full day of your interim leadership.
Mr. Krugman’s June 6 column contains an out-of-context and misleading quotation taken from a story published in the Denver Post on May 26. That same quotation was picked up in a Washington Post column on May 28. The Post later determined that the quotation was so out-of-context and misleading that it issued a correction on June 2. The most charitable conclusion is that Mr. Krugman’s column had not been fact-checked.
Here is the quotation as it appeared in Mr. Krugman’s column. The person quoted is Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform. Earlier in the column, Mr. Krugman fails to identify Mr. Norquist’s affiliation, but says instead only that he is “the right-wing ideologue who has become one of the most powerful men in Washington.”
Which brings us back to Senator Miller, and all those politicians and pundits who still imagine that there is room for compromise, that they can find some bipartisan middle ground. Mr. Norquist was recently quoted in The Denver Post with the answer to that: “Bipartisanship is another name for date rape.”
A reader of Mr. Krugman’s column would reasonably conclude, first, that this quote is something that Norquist said; and second, that it represents his endorsement of coercive and abusive partisan legislative strategies.
For the record, here’s the way that quote appeared in the original Denver Post story of May 26:
“Bipartisanship is another name for date rape,” Norquist, a onetime adviser to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, said, citing an axiom of House conservatives.
Veteran GOP operative Grover Norquist called Friday to clarify some comments in the Denver Post and in this column last week. … that line “bipartisanship is like date rape” is not his, he said, but was coined by former House majority leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) when the GOP was in the minority and being bipartisan meant getting the short end.
In its corrected version, it has entirely the opposite meaning as that implied in Mr. Krugman’s column. The Post correction revealed that the quote was both not Norquist’s originally, and that its meaning in light of its origin was not to endorse coercive and abusive Republican partisanship, but to complain about coercive and abusive Democratic partisanship.
Here is another apparent violation of what should be high standards at the Times. In the same column, Mr. Krugman wrote,
Most media attention has focused on the child tax credit that wasn’t. As in 2001, the administration softened the profile of a tax cut mainly aimed at the wealthy by including a credit for families with children. But at the last minute, a change in wording deprived 12 million children of some or all of that tax credit. “There are a lot of things that are more important than that,” declared Tom DeLay, the House majority leader. (Maybe he was thinking of the “Hummer deduction,” which stayed in the bill: business owners may now deduct up to $100,000 for the cost of a vehicle, as long as it weighs at least 6,000 pounds.)
This quotation from Mr. DeLay is an out-of-context fragment of a larger statement. As reported in a June 4 story in USA Today,
“There are a lot of other things that are more important than that,” House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, said of addressing low-income families. “If it is a part of a bigger bill … and can get us some votes over in the Senate, then I’m more than open to it.”
Mr. Krugman’s selected fragment gives the impression that Mr. DeLay is callously indifferent to the plight of “12 million children.” But the full context of his statement reveals that this matter is, in Mr. DeLay’s mind, simply part of a larger legislative context — as one might reasonably expect any single element of the tax code to be. I was made aware of this by Steven Antler, an economics professor at Roosevelt University.
Further, Mr. Krugman’s fact-checkers should have detected his incorrect assertion that the child tax credit was the victim of a “last minute” “change of wording.” Mr. Krugman asserted the same thing in his June 3 column, in which he called it a “last minute switcheroo.” As Senate Finance Committee chair Charles Grassley explained in a May 29 statement, issued in response to a Times news story of the same date which made the same incorrect assertion,
The change reported in today’s New York Times was not a last-minute revision. The accelerated refundable child tax credit was not in the President’s original proposal, and it was not in the bill passed by the House of Representatives. This credit, a new and expanded spending program, was added to the jobs and economic growth bill on top of the tax-cut provisions during the Senate Finance Committee markup. When House-Senate conferees were forced to fit all of the tax cuts and all of the new government spending into a $350 billion package, the add-ons, including this new government spending, were dropped from the bill.
Also, Mr. Krugman provides no source for the claim that the change in the tax bill “deprived 12 million children.” In his June 3 column, he claimed it was “eight million children,” and didn’t cite a source then, either.
One source that Mr. Krugman does cite in the most recent column is the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. He says,
… as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities points out, this latest tax cut reduces federal revenue as a share of G.D.P. to its lowest level since 1959.
This organization is cited frequently by the Times — and very frequently by Krugman (at least 14 times other than the most recent column, including Mr. Krugman’s columns of 5/29/01, 8/21/01, 9/30/01, 1/11/02, 2/19/02, 4/19/02, 7/30/02, 8/6/02, 8/30/02, 9/20/02, 12/27/02, 1/21/03, 3/21/03, and 5/9/03). In recent Times news stories, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities is identified truthfully as a “liberal group” (as in this news story on May 29) or a “liberal research group” (as in this news story on June 1). Mr. Krugman posted a bulletin on his personal website on May 28 admitting that the CBPP is “Democratic in orientation.”
Why are Mr. Krugman’s op-eds held to a lower standard of disclosure about the political orientation of sources than Times news stories or messages on his own website?
Mr. Lelyveld, in the Times code of conduct issued in January 2003, you state that “staff members” who “recklessly provide false information for publication betray our fundamental pact with our readers.” You state in the code that “It is our policy to correct our errors, large and small, as soon as we become aware of them.”
I see in those statements no exclusion for editorial writers or op-ed columnists.
Donald L. Luskin