Journalistic malpractice

Matthew Hoy
By Matthew Hoy on December 31, 2006

The New York Times has a serious, deeply rooted, institutional problem: It's filled to the brim with left-liberal journalists, editors and executives who too often abandon basic journalistic principals when they conflict with their political orthodoxy.

Sunday's column by public editor Byron Calame addressed the April 9 New York Times Magazine story by Jack Hitt, "Pro-Life Nation."

The story claimed that Carmen Climaco had been sentenced to 30 years for getting an illegal abortion in El Salvador. The truth is something completely different:

It turns out, however, that trial testimony convinced a court in 2002 that Ms. Climaco’s pregnancy had resulted in a full-term live birth, and that she had strangled the “recently born.” [baby -- not even Calame can seem to use the word] A three-judge panel found her guilty of “aggravated homicide,” a fact the article noted. But without bothering to check the court document containing the panel’s findings and ruling, the article’s author, Jack Hitt, a freelancer, suggested that the “truth” was different.

Calame describes a number of disturbing journalistic errors -- the first of which is a failure to check everything you can. The old journalism saw that if your mother says she loves you -- check it out, wasn't followed in this case. Hitt instead relied on one of his pro-choice source's characterization of the case.

All of this is plenty of evidence of the "metropolitan" bias of the Times, but as they say about Washington scandals -- it's not the crime, it's the cover up.

The magazine’s failure to check the court ruling was then compounded for me by the handling of reader complaints about the issue. The initial complaints triggered a public defense of the article by two assistant managing editors before the court ruling had even been translated into English or Mr. Hitt had finished checking various sources in El Salvador. After being queried by the office of the publisher about a possible error, Craig Whitney, who is also the paper’s standards editor, drafted a response that was approved by Gerald Marzorati, who is also the editor of the magazine. It was forwarded on Dec. 1 to the office of the publisher, which began sending it to complaining readers.

The response said that while the “fair and dispassionate” story noted Ms. Climaco’s conviction of aggravated homicide, the article “concluded that it was more likely that she had had an illegal abortion.” The response ended by stating, “We have no reason to doubt the accuracy of the facts as reported in our article, which was not part of any campaign to promote abortion.”

After the English translation of the court ruling became available on Dec. 8, I asked Mr. Marzorati if he continued to have “no reason to doubt the accuracy of the facts” in the article. His e-mail response seemed to ignore the ready availability of the court document containing the findings from the trial before the three-judge panel and its sentencing decision. He referred to it as the “third ruling,” since the trial is the third step in the judicial process.

The article was “as accurate as it could have been at the time it was written,” Mr. Marzorati wrote to me. “I also think that if the author and we editors knew of the contents of that third ruling, we would have qualified what we said about Ms. Climaco. Which is NOT to say that I simply accept the third ruling as ‘true’; El Salvador’s judicial system is terribly politicized.”

I asked Mr. Whitney if he intended to suggest that the office of the publisher bring the court’s findings to the attention of those readers who received the “no reason to doubt” response, or that a correction be published. The latest word from the standards editor: “No, I’m not ready to do that, nor to order up a correction or Editors’ Note at this point.”

Do you think that Marzorati would be more amenable to a correction or Editor's Note if it was his ox that had been gored in the original article?

One thing is clear to me, at this point, about the key example of Carmen Climaco. Accuracy and fairness were not pursued with the vigor Times readers have a right to expect.

I noted before that the Times suffers from one problem: Its homogeneous liberal newsroom which creates an overwhelming liberal bias. It also has a second problem: Its failure to own up to the existence of the first problem.

The original errors in this article are troubling enough. The utter refusal to acknowledge them is far worse.

Journalism. Wound. Self-inflicted.

0 comments on “Journalistic malpractice”


[custom-twitter-feeds headertext="Hoystory On Twitter"]


December 2006



pencil linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram