Thursday, September 07, 2006

The Times' Peculiar Corrections Policy

In his most recent column, Cash Michaels astutely noted, “A roundly criticized New York Times article published last week, indicating that a report based on the memory of Durham Police investigator Sgt. Mark Gottlieb plugs some of the holes in Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong’s case, has raised more questions about how long Durham authorities knew their public bark about the alleged guilt of the three Duke lacrosse players charged, was a lot more than the actual bite they had in credible evidence.”

The flaws of the Times piece have been widely noted. In spectacular fashion, Stuart Taylor demolished the article in Slate, while Liestoppers picked the piece apart line by line. The Times’ effort was, as MSNBC’s Dan Abrams noted, “shameful.” As for the article’s defenders? Most appear to have remained silent.

Abrams correctly described the Times article as “an editorial on the front page of what is supposed to be the news division of the newspaper.” Several days ago, I wrote the Times correction desk about three factual errors in the article. It especially troubled me that each of these errors reinforced the piece’s proudly proclaimed argument, stated in its fifth paragraph: “While there are big weaknesses in Mr. Nifong’s case, there is also a body of evidence to support his decision to take the matter to a jury.” (I’m curious about the process through which Times editors approved this line.) But I hoped that, at the very least, corrections for the three mistakes would be run.

It appears as if the corrections aren’t forthcoming. First of all, here are the article’s three indisputably erroneous items:

1.) According to the Times, the accuser “identified four people she thought were at the party, including Mr. Seligmann, but none as her attackers” in the March 16 lineup.

The accuser did identify four people with 100% accuracy as attending the party. But Seligmann wasn’t one of them. She said that she was only 70% sure that Seligmann attended.

Yesterday morning, the Times ran a non-correction correction:
A front-page article on Aug. 25 about evidence in the case of three Duke University lacrosse players charged with rape misstated the number of people the accuser identified from photographs as having attended a team party where she said she was attacked. When she was shown pictures of 24 team members two and a half days after the party, she said she thought five of them, not four, were at the party.
The Times thus never acknowledged, in either the original article or the correction, that while the accuser was sure of four people who attended the party, she was only 70% certain that she even saw Seligmann. Can the Times seriously be claiming that its readers should make no distinction between the accuser saying on March 16 that she was 100% certain that four players attended the party and only 70% sure that Seligmann did so? The correction's wording suggests the answer to this question is yes.

2.) 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.”

"That much is agreed"? Kim Roberts' March 22 statement says that the racially-charged argument occurred outside the house at around 12:45, not inside the house at 12:04. The statement of neighbor Jason Bissey says the same thing. So, I’ve been told, do the statements of the three captains.

In short, the only people who would seem to claim that a racial epithet was used inside the house before 12:04 are Nifong, the accuser, and the two Times journalists.

3.) According to the Times, “Ms. Roberts has given contradictory accounts. On March 22, she 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 the accuser'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 gives the impression that Roberts denied the accuser’s tale to police only on one occasion, when she actually did so twice.

[Updated, 10.53am: I should add that a fourth apparent factual error exists. According to the Times, "The other dancer, Ms. Roberts, told the police that her partner had arrived 'clearly sober.'"

Yet Roberts' March 22 statement to police contains no such remark. It does say, however, that the accuser started "showing signs of intoxication" fairly soon after arriving--certainly odd behavior for someone who was "clearly sober." I emailed the Times authors to ask if they were referring to another, unreleased and heretofore unknown, Roberts statement in referencing this quote. They didn't reply.]

Most disturbing, the Times' factual errors help to advance the article's argument that “there is also a body of evidence to support [Nifong’s] decision to take the matter to a jury” regarding Seligmann. It's not easy, of course, to justify Nifong having charged a demonstrably innocent person. But Times authors Duff Wilson and Jonathan Glater do their best, even if they have to change a few inconvenient facts in the process.

According to the Times, the accuser was consistently certain that she saw Seligmann at the party. According to the Times, Seligmann was present as the accuser suffered from racial taunts.

The only problem with this portrayal of events? Both items are demonstrably untrue. On March 16, the accuser conceded that, unlike her identifications of four other players, she wasn't even sure she saw Seligmann at the party–raising the question of how Nifong could, in good faith, have charged someone that the accuser initially couldn’t even name with 100% certainty as having attended the affair. And Seligmann was not present when one of the lacrosse players used a racial epithet, despite the Times’ attempt to tar him with guilt by association.

Add to these two factual errors, both of which reinforce the piece’s central argument, the Times’ peculiar wording regarding Seligmann’s alibi. Readers of the Times article never would have learned that Seligmann appeared on a videotape a mile away at the time of the alleged attack. Wilson and Glater cryptically describe the videotape as an “A.T.M. record.”

Those inclined toward a conspiratorial mindset might even believe that Nifong (in violation of a gag order) gave Wilson and Glater access to the Gottlieb report in exchange for an implied promise that the story would make Seligmann–whose presence in the case is a public relations nightmare for the prosecution– appear less innocent.

Let me reiterate: quite apart from its factual inaccuracies, the Times article was deeply flawed, in both conception and execution. As Stuart Taylor argued,
The Wilson-Glater piece highlights every superficially incriminating piece of evidence in the case, selectively omits important exculpatory evidence, and reports hotly disputed statements by not-very-credible police officers and the mentally unstable accuser as if they were established facts. With comical credulity, it features as its centerpiece a leaked, transparently contrived, 33-page police sergeant’s memo that seeks to paper over some of the most obvious holes in the prosecution's evidence.
But the errors do matter, beyond a stickler's point for journalistic accuracy. The Times–the supposed paper of record–went out of its way to inaccurately frame the case against Seligmann, and then either left the record uncorrected or printed a correction that was misleading in and of itself. As Abrams would say, “shameful” behavior.


Anonymous said...

Perhaps, after all this is over and done, the Seligmann family should sue New York Times. That may teach NYT how to handle similar inaccuracies in the future. I would certainly do it, if it was my son who was being framed by these NYT clowns.

Anonymous said...

Once this horror show ends, there are going to be all kinds of payback. Wilson and Glater should realize the internet never forgets.

Anonymous said...

How disgusting. They run a "correction", but now their "correction" is in desperate need of correction. The young man is facing decades in prison based on a accusation of a woman who was only 70% sure he even was at the party. Times, instead of pointing that out, is trying to hide that fact. How truly shamless.

Anonymous said...

Three white men falsely accused of rape by a woman of color employed in the sex industry does not coincide with the political mission of the NY Times.

It would be interesting to compare the Times' treatment of the Duke case with the paper's wrtings on the accused in the Tawana Brawley situation.

Anonymous said...

The NY Times has long lost its place in the line of honest & fair journalism.