Sunday, July 17, 2005

Oh, what a tangled web we weave...

Editorial Malpractice commented on The New York Times' too cute by half correction of an Op-Ed pieced by Captain Philip Carter. The correction text was as follows:
The Op-Ed page in some copies yesterday carried an incorrect version of an article about military recruitment. The writer, an Army reserve officer, did not say, "Imagine my surprise the other day when I received orders to report to Fort Campbell, Ky., next Sunday," nor did he characterize his recent call-up to active duty as the precursor to a "surprise tour of Iraq." That language was added by an editor and was to have been removed before the article was published. Because of a production error, it was not. The Times regrets the error.
The Times' Public Editor, Byron Calame, wrote a piece today attempting to further explain the correction. As you will see momentarily, the article is ironically entitled 'When an Explanation Doesn't Explain Enough'. Where's the irony? Consider the following:


We must go back to early June to start finding answers to these questions. That's when Captain Carter, then still a lawyer in a San Francisco firm, submitted a 700-word Op-Ed piece that urged President Bush to make a military recruiting speech. The analysis had already been edited when Captain Carter sent an e-mail message to the paper on June 22 that said the Army had "recalled" him for duty in Iraq.

Captain Carter's message led The Times that same afternoon to propose the textual changes that alluded to the surprise of his call to active duty, the officer said. "Within 10 minutes" after receiving the changes, he recalled, "I said, 'No way.' Those were not words I would have said. It left the impression that I was conscripted." His call-up was "not a surprise," he told me, because he had actually "volunteered" for mobilization. (It's not clear when the editors first learned that he had volunteered for active duty.)
The emphasized text above, in context, should seem strange to the seasoned blogger. Why is Mr. Calame explaining the genesis of the "surprise" statement in the following way?:
Captain Carter's message led The Times that same afternoon to propose the textual changes that alluded to the surprise of his call to active duty, the officer said.
Why is it "the officer said" and not "Editor Shipley said", who is referred to later in the article? Wouldn't you think if the New York Times created the error, Mr. Calame would try to get the explanation straight from the horse's mouth; the editor that inserted the "surprise" statement?

Why don't we have a direct quote from the editor saying something to the effect of, "After receiving Captain Carter's email, the 'surprise' statement was added"? Is it because at that point Mr. Calame would have to start exploring the editor's state of mind and what evidence Mr. Carter's email gave for the recall to be categorized as a "surprise"?

Instead the 'explanation' continues with this:
An e-mail response from his editor later in the day continued to press for mentioning the call to active duty. "O.K.," it said, according to Captain Carter, "but we need the personal reference. Not only does it make the piece stronger, we otherwise would not be forthcoming with the readers."
What's with the "according to Captain Carter" thing again? Doesn't Mr. Calame have access to the email sent out by the Times editor?!?

We then get this juicy paragraph:
In subsequent telephone conversations, Captain Carter told me, "I indicated I would pull the piece before having textual references added." David Shipley, the editor in charge of the Op-Ed pages, confirms the officer's threat. So the version of the article with the suggested "surprise" phrases in the text was cast aside. It was then agreed that a reference to active duty would be included in the author identification that ran with the article.
Sounds like the editor Mr. Carter was working with was being fairly insistent on the "surprise" statement and Mr. Carter had to threaten to pull the piece before the Times backed off.

The 'explanation' at this point goes on to detail the mechanics of how the "surprise" statement was left in for the final copy having totally missed (or purposely avoided) an opportunity to deal with the proverbial elephant in the room.

Public Editor Calame's explanation of the explanation is lame, wanting and brings up more questions that need to be addressed.


Update 2: Power Line notes that the explanation's "facts suggest an almost unbelievable persistence on the part of the Times in putting the desired words in the officer's mouth..."

Update 3: Say Anything: "Mistakes happen, we can all understand that, but the problem at the heart of this issue is not that a mistake happened but that it reveals an inherent bias at the heart of the Times editorial staff."

Update 4: "No bias here, just idiocy. Move along, until the next time we have to lower ourselves to answer to you."

Update 5: Regret the Error hones in on this quote from editor David Shipley in the piece which is worthy of a comment:
This sort of give-and-take is standard practice on the Op-Ed pages. "We try to clarify and improve copy," said Mr. Shipley. "We do this for the benefit of our contributors, many of whom are not professional writers. We do not impose language on them - if they want something out or something in, we accede to their wishes. They have final sign-off."
One can understand the "give-and-take" of an editorial process, but how about the mind reading? Right at this point there was an opportunity for Public Editor Calame to explore the insertion of the "surprise".

Wasn't Mr. Calame the slightest bit curious during the interview with Mr. Shipley of how he (Mr. Shipley or whichever editor inserted the "surprise") had the insight into Captain Carter's state of mind? What evidence was there to conclude that Captain Carter would have feelings of "surprise"? If, as is suspected, there was no evidence, the "surprise" was literally and figuratively all in the Times editors' head.

Update 6: Too Rich: the NYT Explains Actively Biasing a Story


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