In his latest Sunday column, New York Times editor Bill Keller tries to lay out the Times’ ideals — as distinct from the work of “guerrilla” newsies like Julian Assange and James O’Keefe. Keller’s credo: Verification beats assertion! Correct errors quickly and forthrightly! Who’d argue?
Anyone can embrace these principles; the devil’s in applying them. Of our major news institutions, the Times leads the pack today when it comes to correcting its goofs. It is, I think, the last of our media outlets to accept that the burden of “paper of record” authority means an endless parade of corrections.
But the juxtaposition this weekend of Keller’s self-defense with a particularly glaring Times misstep leaves me with some unsettling questions.
Writing on his Shanghai Scrap blog last week, China-based journalist Adam Minter took apart the Times’ Monday story about electronic censorship in China. The story led with a funny anecdote about cellphone calls in China getting cut off by government censors whenever they utter the word “protest” — even if they’re quoting Shakespeare’s “lady doth protest too much.” The rest of the piece wasn’t about cell-phone monitoring at all, but rather describes a recent tightening of Chinese Internet censorship.
Minter thought the “protest” thing sounded fishy, so he performed an impromptu field-test. He was unable to duplicate the censors’ call cutoff, using three different phrases including “protest”, uttered in succession twice during cell calls to five different recipients in China.
That’s just “anecdata,” sure. But so was the Times’ tale — and if it doesn’t pass this basic sniff test, it shouldn’t be in the paper.
But the story gets messier. On Thursday Minter found a comment on his blog from Jonathan Ansfield, a Times contributor in the Beijing bureau who was listed as one of the story’s contributors. “For the record,” Ansfield wrote, “the contributing reporter’s own tests comport with yours. regrettably his input on the story made little difference.”
Whoa! This doesn’t sound good.
By this morning, the Times had appended an Editor’s Note to the story, explaining that it had failed to mention that the dropped-call anecdotes happened at the Times’ own bureau:
The article did not point out that in both cases, the recipients of the calls were in the Beijing bureau of The New York Times. Because scrutiny of press communications could easily be higher than for those of the public at large, the calls could not be assumed to represent a broader trend; therefore, those examples should not have been given such prominence in the article.
So the Times gets one cheer for dealing with this at all, and dealing with it quickly. But, given the evident breakdown in the editorial process, it also leaves us with a bunch of further questions. We still don’t know exactly what went awry here: How did a solid and important account of Internet censorship get saddled with a misconceived intro about cellphone surveillance — one that not only “should not have been given such prominence” but probably shouldn’t have been published at all? How did the Times’ editorial process override the evident objections of its reporter on the scene?
This is where defenders of the traditional newsroom circle-the-wagons practice pipe up in protest: “What do you guys want? We can’t do our work under a spotlight! Should every editorial argument be aired in public?”
And this is also where reasonable advocates of transparency respond, “Of course not. Not when the system works fine. But when there’s a problem, you owe it to your readers to tell them the whole story of what happened, just as your own reporters would try to tell the whole story of what happened in any other institution that erred.”
One problem is that our newsroom culture still drapes errors in shame instead of handling them as inevitable byproducts of an imperfect business. Keller’s column talks about “taking yourself to the woodshed,” which is, if I recall, the place where you get spanked, or worse.
The Times’ opaque Editor’s Note non-explanation is a symptom of a kind of defensiveness that infects most of our news institutions. Yes, we will correct our errors, say our editors. But first, they insist, prove to us we were wrong! Then, and only then, we’ll grudgingly admit it while doing our best to minimize it. But don’t expect us to tell you the whole story of the process that led to the error — unless it was so scandalous (see: Jayson Blair; Iraq WMD) that we feel we have no choice.
This defensiveness is inevitable; it comes with our humanity. That’s why journalists committed to verification and accuracy need to bend over backwards to counter it.
Keller makes this argument himself in his effort to explain why he considers the “impartiality” of Times reporters to be such an immovable principle. He writes, “Once you proclaim an opinion, you may feel an urge to defend it, and that creates a temptation to overlook inconvenient facts when you should be searching them out.” This is certainly true — and it is why the best opinion columnists make a point of seeking out the the most inconvenient facts and the strongest opposing arguments.
What Keller doesn’t seem to see is that the logic he applies to opinion also holds for fact. Once a news organization proclaims a version of reality, its first instinct will always be to defend it. Trouble is, the defensiveness doesn’t protect the newsroom at all; it actually further undermines the public’s already shaky trust in the journalist’s work. The reader thinks: Why won’t they just tell us what happened? What are they trying to hide?
So now Bill Keller is writing a regular column, and he’s given us his journalistic credo of verification, impartiality and the “business of witness.” Wouldn’t it be great for him to apply those ideals in his own writing about the Times itself? What if Keller used his column to give us forthright, open explanations of how the Times runs off the rails in cases like this Beijing phone-call affair? In other words, not just an editor’s note — an editor’s story.
BONUS LINK: Felix Salmon takes Keller to the, uh, woodshed.
UPDATE: I missed the simple factual error in Keller’s original column, (James O’Keefe didn’t impersonate a Muslim NPR would-be donor, his confederates did). But John McQuaid caught it and filed an error report at MediaBugs. The Times corrected it Sunday afternoon. The paper has let stand a broader misrepresentation Keller made about the O’Keefe affair (NPR exec Shiller, it turns out, offered a derisive description of the GOP via a quote from disaffected Republicans — he wasn’t expressing his own opinion).