Sunday, July 24, 2005

Pay No Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain

July 17, 2005
The New York Times

When an Explanation Doesn't Explain Enough
Corrections Appended

UPHOLDING the journalistic integrity of The New York Times requires a lot of care. Maintaining the perception of journalistic integrity can require even more care.

Mistakes can become a black eye for the paper, especially when established editing procedures and safeguards are bypassed. And even a forthright correction, when crafted without careful attention to the perceptions it may create, can make things worse.

Such a case occurred a little more than a week ago, when this disturbing editors' note appeared in the paper:

"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."

An unusual number of readers were quick to assume - and complain - that a Times editor had tried to put words in the mouth of the reserve Army officer, Capt. Phillip Carter, without his consent. Many saw an anti-Bush bias in the added language.

"How can it be that editors were putting words in the mouth/pen of a contributor, words that completely changed the tone of the piece?" asked Peter Henry of Princeton, N.J. "Mr. Carter's aim was to call upon the President to make direct recruiting pitches. This urging could be read to contain an implicit criticism, yes, but certainly not in the manner akin to what the editor(s) inserted into Mr. Carter's work. What was added by the editor(s) changed the tenor of the contribution and was, in layperson's terms, a bold-faced lie."

Michael J. Painter of San Francisco also had questions: "It's one thing to change a word or phrase for clarity's sake or cut something for brevity, but how can any editor pull such stuff out of thin air and add it to an op-ed piece? An op-ed piece is supposed to reflect the views of the author, not an editor's. I don't get it. What am I missing?"

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.)

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."

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.

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."

So Captain Carter, who has contributed articles to several publications, approved the final version without the "surprise" phrases - a clearance that is standard practice on the Op-Ed pages. But then came the mistake that the editors' note called a "production error." The editor in charge of the piece accidentally discarded, or "spiked" in the paper's jargon, the cleared final version and instead put the previously rejected copy with the "surprise" phrases on the track for publication. "Unfortunately, we blew it," Mr. Shipley said.

When the editor left on vacation, Captain Carter worked with a second editor to update the article after President Bush's June 28 speech about Iraq. The editor entered the officer's changes in the version of the piece that he found in the lineup of articles awaiting publication, which was the one with the "surprise" sentences. But that version was never sent back to Captain Carter, as a strict adherence to the standards of the Op-Ed pages would seem to require even though all the changes had come from him.

"If the changes are really small, and they're fine, and they're from the author, then it's really just a matter of typing them in correctly," Mr. Shipley said. "In retrospect, of course, I wish we had sent him a final final."

The stage was now set for the hectic events of Tuesday night, July 5. In San Francisco, Captain Carter checked at about 10 p.m. his time to look at his article, headlined "Quiet Man," a reference to the president. Spotting the "surprise" phrases in the article, he immediately called The Times's news desk in New York. "I told them to kill it," he told me in an interview last week.

So the Carter article was yanked out of the paper and an ad for The Times itself was hastily dropped in its place. The article was also removed from until a corrected version could be prepared.

The next morning, Gail Collins, editor of the editorial page, and Mr. Shipley began work on the editors' note, the strongest of the corrective statements The Times publishes. Clearly, they didn't try to minimize the mistakes that had been made. But because they did not take a little more space to explain how the "surprise" phrases had surfaced as part of the give-and-take of the editing and updating process, readers were left to suspect the worst. And that fed perceptions of a serious ethical lapse at The Times.

"It did not occur to me to get into a more detailed explanation of the editorial process," Mr. Shipley said. "In hindsight, maybe I should have added a line or two. It was already pretty long and complicated, though."

Even with this sorting out of the mistakes actually made and the mistaken perceptions of some readers, the doubts about the paper's credibility stirred up by this incident won't be easily erased.

The July 17 public editor column incorrectly reported where Phillip Carter lived and the location of the law firm where he worked before he was called to active Army duty. He lived in Santa Monica, Calif., and the law firm was in Los Angeles.

The public editor serves as the readers' representative. His opinions and conclusions are his own. His column appears at least twice monthly in this section


Post a Comment

<< Home