To Err is Human, But Are Corrections Divine?

To err is human, but newspaper corrections aren’t so divine. The biggest issue is that corrections don’t get the same prominence as the original articles.

Posting corrections at the bottom of articles online afterwards is nice, but readers who see the original error aren’t likely to revisit the same article again. We read, make our judgments, and move on — often before even finishing the article.

So badly worded corrections, poorly tweaked articles, and other mistakes remaining uncorrected don’t benefit readers.

Which brings us to the NY Times and two of their Mideast heavyweights: columnist Tom Friedman, and Jerusalem bureau chief Jodi Rudoren.

Tom Friedman

Tom Friedman

I’ll start off with Tom Friedman. Yesterday, the columnist implied that 60s rock star Eric Burdon had boycotted Israel. A correction at the bottom of the article states:

Thomas L. Friedman’s column on Wednesday about peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians misattributed a sentence about a singer, Eric Burdon, to The Independent of Britain. The sentence — “Burdon was just the latest of a rising number of artists and intellectuals who have started boycotting Israel over the occupation issue” — was by Mr. Friedman. (After withdrawing from a planned concert in Israel, Mr. Burdon decided to go ahead with it, despite pressure not to.)

Never mind the attribution. When you look at the text of Friedman’s column, you still get the impression Burdon cancelled the show:

Let’s start with a small item in Britain’s Independent newspaper on July 24, which began: “He once sang, ‘You Gotta Get Outta This Place,’ but now Eric Burdon is not even turning up at all having deciding to withdraw from a planned concert in Israel. … The Animals frontman, whose hits include ‘House of the Rising Sun,’ and ‘San Franciscan Nights,’ had been due to perform alongside local Israeli bands in Binyamina. … However, in a statement, Mr. Burdon’s management, said: ‘We’ve been receiving mounting pressure, including numerous threatening e-mails, daily. …’” Burdon was just the latest of a rising number of artists and intellectuals who have started boycotting Israel over the occupation issue.

(The Independent article Friedman refers to was written when Burdon’s show was initially cancelled. The Indy followed up when Burdon overruled his managers.)

By the time Friedman’s column was published, Burdon’s performance at Binyamina’s Zappa Shuni Amphitheater was well-reported in the Israeli media. So Friedman could have known Burdon wasn’t “the latest” of the celebrities “who have started boycotting Israel.”

But Friedman didn’t, and that’s why newspapers correct the record. Mistakes happen.

But silly me. I thought correcting the record meant fixing the article, not leaving the error in place and vainly hoping readers scroll down to the bottom to look for the relevant fixes.

There’s another Friedman flub to fix:

One should never forget just how crazy some of Israel’s Jewish settlers are. They assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin when he tried to cede part of the West Bank for peace.

Rabin’s assassin, Yigal Amir, is from the coastal town of Herzliya, which is well inside Israel proper. Adam Kredo points out that the last time the Gray Lady wrote that Rabin was killed by settlers, back in 2005, it issued this correction more accurately describing Amir “a militant Orthodox opponent of the government, not a settler.”

Jodi Rudoren

Jodi Rudoren

Contrast that with a recent dispatch by Jodi Rudoren. The bureau chief incorrectly stated that the US State Dept. considers Israeli settlements in the West Bank “illegal.” The correction reads:

An article on Monday about a decision by the Israeli cabinet to add several Jewish settlements in the West Bank territory seized by Israel in the 1967 war to a list of communities eligible for extra subsidies and better mortgage rates and loans for new homeowners misstated the United States’ view of such settlements. While much of the rest of the world considers them illegal, as the article noted, the United States has taken no formal position in the last several years on whether they are legal or illegal. (In a statement on Tuesday, the State Department said, “We do not accept the legitimacy of continued settlement activity.” )

Unlike Friedman’s column, the text of Rudoren’s report was revised to reflect the correction:

Most of the world considers these settlements illegal, and some of them sit in the heart of the area imagined as a future Palestinian state. The United States has not taken a position on the settlements’ legality for several decades, saying instead, according to the State Department, “We do not accept the legitimacy of continued settlement activity.”

So I’m wondering:

  1. Why were the facts of Rudoren’s piece corrected in the text but not Friedman’s?
  2. If the NY Times staff isn’t paying attention to its own corrections, do you think the public is either?
  3. Who is responsible for notifying papers that republish NYT content — like the Sydney Morning Herald, among others — that a correction was made?
  4. As I asked over a similar mishap last year, If the NY Times Posts a Correction, Does it Make a Sound?