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Newspaper Corrections Run Amok With Trivia

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By Michael Kinsley
Friday, September 4, 2009

"Fact checking" is a tradition of some publications, mainly magazines, in which one set of employees, called fact checkers, is called upon to reconfirm every fact in an article by another set of employees, called writers, generally by finding these facts in newspapers, which don't have fact checkers. During a blameless journalistic career, in which I have sometimes had occasion to mock this practice, I have always resisted criticism from colleagues that my real problem is with the facts themselves. But I'm beginning to think they may be right. Who can take facts seriously after reading the daily "Corrections" column in the New York Times? Although the purpose of this column is to demonstrate the Times's rectitude about taking facts seriously, the facts it corrects are generally so bizarre or trivial and its tone so schoolmarmish that the effect is to make the whole pursuit of factual accuracy seem ridiculous.

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On Thursday, for example, there were eight items. A firm called OncoMed Pharmaceuticals was founded by Dr. Michael F. Clarke and Dr. Max Wicha, not just the first guy. The brother of the president of Ecuador is named Fabricio Correa, not Patricio Correa. A research analyst for Deutsche Bank had said that office vacancies are increasing and rents are decreasing, "not the other way around." (Okay, now that is an important mistake.) Irrigation runoff is just one of several factors in the rising salinity level of a lake in California, "not the only one." Something about transistors I've read three times and still don't get. Ditto something about the Canadian rules of evidence in criminal trials in 1971. The publisher of a book about a hurricane in Louisiana in 1856 is "PublicAffairs," not "Public Affairs." And one of the writers of the song "Leader of the Pack" attended Hofstra College, which didn't become Hofstra University until 1963.

There is a weird, repetitive pattern to these Times corrections. In just the past couple of weeks, there have been other corrections about the official name of an institution of higher learning (the College of William & Mary, not William and Mary College); about the omission of a company co-founder; about the name of a service to make long-distance calls (Voxox, not Vovox); and about the name of a ballet company (Ballets Russes, not Ballet Russes). Running corrections like these serves the Times's purpose of being the "newspaper of record." They also serve the purpose of simply shutting people up. But who are these people who give their companies impossible names like Voxox or PublicAffairs and then get upset and demand a correction when a newspaper gets it wrong? Does nobody at the College of William & Mary have anything better to do than to scour the media looking for opportunities to correct its name? Why don't these people change the names of their institutions to something sensible like Vovox or William and Mary College, and then move on?

The fad for elaborate and abject corrections, and factual accuracy in general, is based on the misperception that when people complain about the media getting it all wrong, what bothers them is that the newspaper identified the mountain inside Denali National Park as Mount Denali (as it is "referred to by many," the Times defensively put it the other day) and not by its official name of Mount McKinley, which "has not been officially changed." Nor do they care whether a reporter "misstated the size of the National Hockey League when Ed Johnston -- a retired goaltender who is a proponent of safer headgear -- helped the Boston Bruins win Stanley Cup titles in 1970 and 1972." What bothers people is the refusal of the Times and other papers to call President Obama a socialist or a Muslim, or to say outright that talk radio hosts are vermin. In short, most complainers tend to be ideologues whose vision of an accurate newspaper is far different from that of the professionals.

Last month, in an already legendary correction, the Times apologized for seven factual errors in a single article. It was a eulogy of Walter Cronkite, and it had errors such as misspelling Telstar as Telestar and misstating the date of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. The Times's "Public Editor" wrote a column piling on, in which he noted the irony that Cronkite was "famed for his meticulous reporting." He was? I don't think Cronkite did any reporting at all during the period of his fame. What he was famous for was reading a teleprompter. But that is one correction you'll never see.

kinsleym@washpost.com


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