The NYT has published an “Editor’s Note” profusely apologizing for publishing a letter they believed came from Paris Mayor Bertrand DelanoÃ«, in which Caroline Kennedy was roundly critiqued and criticized. They found out after they published it that the letter was a fake.
How did this happen? The editors explain:
This letter, like most Letters to the Editor these days, arrived by email. It is Times procedure to verify the authenticity of every letter. In this case, our staff sent an edited version of the letter to the sender of the email and did not hear back. At that point, we should have contacted Mr. DelanoÃ«’s office to verify that he had, in fact, written to us.
We did not do that. Without that verification, the letter should never have been printed.
We are reviewing our procedures for verifying letters to avoid such an incident in the future.
Right. We’ve heard that one before. From a correction done on an article they did on sexual harassment in the military last year:
The cover article in The Times Magazine on March 18 reported on women who served in Iraq, the sexual abuse that some of them endured and the struggle for all of them to reclaim their prewar lives. One of the servicewomen, Amorita Randall, a former naval construction worker, told The Times that she was in combat in Iraq in 2004 and that in one incident an explosive device blew up a Humvee she was riding in, killing the driver and leaving her with a brain injury. She also said she was raped twice while she was in the Navy.
On March 6, three days before the article went to press, a Times researcher contacted the Navy to confirm Ms. Randall’s account. There was preliminary back and forth but no detailed reply until hours before the deadline. At that time, a Navy spokesman confirmed to the researcher that Ms. Randall had won a Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal with Marine Corps insignia, which was designated for those who served in a combat area, including Iraq, or in direct support of troops deployed in one. But the spokesman said there was no report of the Humvee incident or a record of Ms. Randall’s having suffered an injury in Iraq. The spokesman also said that Ms. Randall’s commander, who served in Iraq, remembered her but said that her unit was never involved in combat while it was in Iraq. Both of these statements from the Navy were included in the article. The article also reported that the Navy had no record of a sexual-assault report involving Ms. Randall.
After The Times researcher spoke with the Navy, the reporter called Ms. Randall to ask about the discrepancies. She stood by her account.
On March 12, three days after the article had gone to press, the Navy called The Times to say that it had found that Ms. Randall had never received imminent-danger pay or a combat-zone tax exemption, indicating that she was never in Iraq. Only part of her unit was sent there; Ms. Randall served with another part of it in Guam. The Navy also said that Ms. Randall was given the medal with the insignia because of a clerical error.
Based on the information that came to light after the article was printed, it is now clear that Ms. Randall did not serve in Iraq, but may have become convinced she did. Since the article appeared, Ms. Randall herself has questioned another member of her unit, who told Ms. Randall that she was not deployed to Iraq. If The Times had learned these facts before publication, it would not have included Ms. Randall in the article.
As I wrote in my post on the “error” at the time:
Got that? The NYT couldn’t verify this woman’s story. The Navy gave them information that would indicate that her story might not be true. The NYT ran with her part of the story anyway. The Navy calls the NYT a few days after the article ran and confirmed that her story wasn’t true. The NYT then printed a correction that essentially blamed the Navy for not getting the more detailed information to them before their precious deadline: “If The Times had learned these facts before publication, it would not have included Ms. Randall in the article.” In other words, their deadline – and, let’s not forget, their agenda – were more important than either 1) waiting a few more days to find out the full 411 on Randall’s story or 2) publishing the article sans Randall’s story due to it’s questionable truthfulness.
Some things never change …
Related: The Politico weighs in with what they believe are the ten biggest media blunders of 2008.