Those of us who hoped the New York Times would become a more balanced and accountable newspaper after the departure of disgraced executive editor Howell Raines have so far been bitterly disappointed. Yes, there is now a bit more balance on the op-ed page, thanks to the arrival of conservative David Brooks. But so far there has not been the slightest progress toward accountability.
As readers of this column know all too well, Paul Krugman — America’s most dangerous liberal pundit — is at the heart of this problem. He continues to publish op-eds brimming with lies, errors, distortions, misquotations, and invented quotations — all without pre-publication fact-checking or follow-up corrections by editors at the Times. The paper’s vice president of corporate communications, Catherine Mathis, confirmed to me that op-ed columns are indeed not fact-checked, and that corrections are at the discretion of the author.
A case in point:
A shameful misquotation in Krugman’s column Tuesday shows the kind of evil mischief that can happen when a columnist goes virtually unsupervised. And if the past is any guide, there will be no correction of the misquotation. (There have been only three Krugman corrections in as many years: here, here, and here). Two Krugman Truth Squad members — Tom Maguire of Just One Minute and David Hogberg of Cornfield Commentary — were all over this one. Here’s the deal:
On October 14, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported remarks by Rep. George Nethercutt (R., Wash.) that made it appear that the congressman was trivializing the deaths of American soldiers in Iraq:
Rep. George Nethercutt said yesterday that Iraq’s reconstruction is going better than is portrayed by the news media, citing his recent four-day trip to the country.
“The story of what we’ve done in the postwar period is remarkable,” Nethercutt, R-Wash., told an audience of 65 at a noon meeting at the University of Washington’s Daniel J. Evans School of Public Affairs.
“It is a better and more important story than losing a couple of soldiers every day.”
He added that he did not want any more soldiers to be killed.
Two days later, Maureen Dowd repeated the quote verbatim in a New York Times op-ed. In her typically chirpy style, she said that Nethercutt had “chimed in to help the White House” and joked that the “congressman puts the casual back in casualty.”
Shortly afterward, Nethercutt protested aggressively that he had been misquoted, claiming in paid advertisements in the Post-Intelligencer and the Seattle Times that the misquotation amounted to “the equivalent of a negative political commercial against me.” Based on an audio file of Nethercutt’s remarks, available on the Post-Intelligencer’s website, here’s what he actually said:
So the story is better than we might be led to believe in the news. I’m just indicting the news people. But it’s, it’s, it’s a bigger and better and more important story than losing a couple of soldiers every day, which, which heaven forbid, is awful.
The Post-Intelligencer’s elimination of Nethercutt’s characterization of the story as “bigger” — without so much as an ellipsis to indicate the edit — substantially changes the tone of the quotation. And cutting Nethercutt’s concluding phrase — “which, which heaven forbid, is awful” — and substituting for it the paraphrase, “He added that he did not want any more soldiers to be killed,” transforms the statement from heartfelt to callous. On October 28, the Post-Intelligencer ran a story revealing the entire quotation and posted the audio file.
Fast forward to Krugman’s latest column:
Some Americans may share the views of the Republican congressman who said that progress in Iraq was “a better and more important story than losing a couple of soldiers every day.” (Support the troops!)
One can’t blame Dowd — she wrote her op-ed twelve days before the Post-Intelligencer ran the correct quotation in its entirety. But Krugman is another matter. His column ran seven days after the full quotation was revealed. Truth Squad member Maguire asks the right question about Krugman: “Lazy, or dishonest? And does he need an editor, or a polygraph?”
Both. Krugman has done this before. Loyal Krugman Truth Squad readers will remember that the very same thing happened just a couple months ago. Krugman’s June 6 column included a seemingly damning quote by Grover Norquist, picked up from another newspaper. But well before Krugman’s version of it appeared in the Times, it had already been corrected in the Washington Post.
Of course the Norquist misquotation was never corrected in the Times, and the Nethercutt misquotation probably won’t be either. But maybe that’s all about to change.
That’s right. According to new Truth Squad member Robert Cox at The National Debate, Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. is supporting a review of the policy that permits columnists to manage their own corrections. This is the result of the well-known Maureen Dowd ellipsis-gate scandal — which Cox first broke — in which Dowd substantially altered the meaning of a quotation from President Bush, and then stealth-corrected it weeks later by including the accurate quotation, unremarked, in the body of a column.
Cox is reporting that Mobile Register editor Mike Marshall — whose newspaper picks up Times columns in syndication — has been pressing Sulzberger on the issue. Cox refers to a letter from Sulzberger to Marshall:
… he described the Sulzberger letter as defending the paper’s reaction to the Dowd controversy because “the NY Times has a policy of leaving corrections up to their columnists” but opening the door for the first time to addressing Maureen Dowd’s well-documented accuracy issues. … Sulzberger went on to add that “this policy will be reviewed by their soon-to-be hired public editor” and that the “editor will be asked: Does it make sense that columnists are held to a different standard than reporters?”
The “public editor” he’s talking about is Daniel Okrent, who was hired to act as the first-ever ombudsman at the Times in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal. Okrent will start work on December 1; some Times-watchers think he may just be willing and able to shake things up a bit on West 43rd Street. If Okrent manages to change the Times’s policy on op-ed corrections, it would put an important new discipline on Krugman, Dowd, and the other make-it-up-as-you-go liberals who appear on the paper’s op-ed page.
And it could start to undo an important part of the Howell Raines legacy.
Raines watched as the news pages of the Times were littered with opinion masquerading as fact. He was in charge while the op-ed page was transformed into a place where facts — and often false ones — could be masqueraded as opinion. Okrent could potentially change all that. And what would Paul Krugman think of this transformation? I suspect he’d find the new level of accountability to be something “which, which heaven forbid, is awful.”