In Sunday’s Times, the new public editor, Clark Hoyt, penned a column lamenting little errors at the paper. “A great newspaper,” he wrote, “has to get the big things right, but it also has to pay fanatical attention to thousands of details every day to prevent the kinds of mistakes that start readers wondering, ‘If they can’t spell his name right, what else is wrong with the story?’”
Hoyt quoted former Times executive editor Joseph Lelyveld: “When it comes to accuracy issues, tolerance and the larger view can be dangerous to our health.”
However, Lelyveld's standards do not appear to have been applied to the Times' coverage of the Duke Lacrosse case. In particular, reporter Duff Wilson's August 25, 2006 Page 1 flagship article contains several major, uncorrected errors. These were made known to the Times shortly after the article's publication.*
To its credit, ten days after the article appeared, the Times did correct Duff Wilson’s misidentification of State Bar attorney Doug Brocker’s name. (Though Wilson was in the courtroom all week, he wrote that Brocker’s name was “Brock.”)
But the Times continues to leave uncorrected significant factual errors from Wilson’s earlier reporting.
For instance, according to the Times, “The dancers stopped. An argument ensued. Using a racial epithet, someone yelled that they had asked for white dancers, not black ones. That much is agreed. It was 12:04 a.m. March 14.”
The Attorney General’s Summary of Conclusions proves that this statement is false. But, based on what Wilson knew or claimed to have known on August 25, 2006, was the statement factually accurate?
The statements of all three captains, Kim Roberts, and Jason Bissey agreed that a racially charged argument occurred outside the house, around 12.45am. None mentioned a “racial epithet” being used inside the house. The only person to make such a claim was Crystal Mangum (in some of her stories). It was, therefore, factually inaccurate for Wilson to write and the Times to publish, “That much is agreed. It was 12:04 a.m. March 14.”
Yet the Times has refused to correct this error—which means that the paper of record is on record as asserting that racial slurs occurred while Reade Seligmann and Collin Finnerty were still at the party. “When it comes to accuracy issues, tolerance and the larger view can be dangerous to our health.”
According to the Times, “The other dancer, Ms. Roberts, told the police that her partner had arrived ‘clearly sober.’”
Kim Roberts never made such a statement to police—either in her March 20, 2006 phone conversation with Ben Himan, or in her official statement of March 22, 2006. From what police document did Duff Wilson obtain this quote? Times readers never learned.
It would seem to me that inaccurately attributing a critical quote is a major error. Yet the Times has refused to correct this error. “When it comes to accuracy issues, tolerance and the larger view can be dangerous to our health.”
According to the Times, “On March 22, [Roberts] told the police that the rape accusation was ‘a crock,’ and that she had been with the accuser for all but five minutes of the party."
Roberts actually told police on March 20 that Mangum’s version of events was a “crock,” according to notes presented in a defense filing. She then gave a statement to police on March 22 in which she further contradicted the accuser's version of events. By compressing the two items, the Times gave the impression that Roberts denied the accuser’s tale to police only on one occasion, when she actually did so twice.
It was a minor mistake—certainly when compared to Wilson’s two other major errors—but nonetheless an item that would seem to fall under Hoyt’s admonition that a great paper “has to pay fanatical attention to thousands of details every day.”
As with Wilson’s other two factual mistakes, the Times has refused to correct this error. “When it comes to accuracy issues, tolerance and the larger view can be dangerous to our health.”
What possible motive could any newspaper have for refusing to correct errors of fact? That’s unclear. But it’s hard to believe that anyone at the Times takes Hoyt’s admonition seriously as long as the paper allows uncorrected such serious errors in such a high-profile case.
*--added for clarity