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The NY Times Expertise With Rowback

Posted By Blackfive • [March 14, 2004]

I like to read 'printed' newspapers rather than the online versions. Of course, I do read on-line newspapers, but I prefer the ritual of having a large cup of coffee, sitting by the fireplace at Starbucks, and spreading the paper out on a table to read. I would read three papers before work. The New York Times is a paper I used to buy and read every single day.

The Times has been taken to task for journalistic integrity time and time again. I usually don't complain too loudly about it as the Times' errors are pointed out routinely (ROUTINELY) by the big shot bloggers. They perform that function extremely well so I don't join in so much...but this post is about a military story that the Times didn't handle too well. When GIs are incorrectly maligned, I can't help but blog about it. So here we go.

You see, back in February, I received an email that had been forwarded four times before it got to me. It was about the New York Times claiming that GIs killed some innocent Iraqis by firing into their automobile.

BAGHDAD, Iraq, Jan. 12 -- American soldiers on Monday night killed an Iraqi man and a boy and wounded four others in a car that was driving behind their convoy after a roadside bomb went off nearby, said witnesses, a police official and relatives of the family in the car. The soldiers, traveling in a convoy of two Humvees, opened fire on the family, which was riding in a dark blue station wagon, after the bomb exploded on Palestine Street about 300 yards from the Oil Ministry, witnesses said.
The email was from a Colonel who alleged that the Times was wrong and that the Times knew it. Colonel Pete Mansoor claimed that the New York Times deliberately ignored the facts of the story - because the Iraqis in the car were killed by shrapnel from a terrorist bomb and NOT the GIs. I couldn't verify the validity of the email (as much as I wanted to) so I didn't blog about it.

Here is conclusion of Colonel Pete Mansoor's email (if you want the whole text, send me an email and I will forward it to you):

...The 1st Armored Division surgeon attended the autopsy of the two dead Iraqi civilians and noted that there was no evidence of wounds caused by rifle or machine gun bullets. The wounds were irregular in shape and caused by shrapnel - pieces of which were removed from the wounds during the autopsy. There were no bullets in the bodies. Wounds to the two injured Iraqi civilians were likewise determined to have been caused by shrapnel.Likewise, visual inspection of the Opel station wagon revealed an irregular pattern of damage but no bullet holes, just what you would expect from damage caused by a large explosion. All the holes in the car were either too mishapen or too large for them to be bullet holes.

OK, so you've read the reporter's story and you've read a synopsis of the investigating officer's report. You can make up your own mind. My main issue with this whole incident is that although you can read both sides of the story in this e-mail, the American people only know the original story as printed in the Times, which never issued a retraction or clarification.Let the reader beware.

Turns out that the Colonel was correct about the original story being inaccurate but incorrect about the Times not retracting the mistakes in the original story.

Before we get too far into this, please understand that the reporter, Edward Wong, sent a correction to his editor as soon as he knew the truth.

Here is where we get to the problem with the New York Times. This quote is from an editorial by Daniel Okrent, the Public Editor and the readers' representative at the paper:

...In fact, The Times not only published a clarification the day after the first story appeared, but did it under a robust five-column headline. Yet, just like Colonel Mansoor, you'd never know it unless you were looking for it, because of a squirrelly journalistic dance step known to old-timers as a "rowback.''

...Reporter Edward Wong, who wrote the Times story that inflamed Colonel Mansoor, did everything he could to get the story right. He asked questions of every available witness and all available authorities; he tried to interview survivors at a nearby hospital; he attributed assertions of American responsibility to named individuals.

Not 24 hours later, though, American authorities informed Wong that an investigation indicated that the two civilians had been killed by bomb shrapnel. Wong immediately sent in an update to The Times's online edition and reported the clarifying details in the next day's paper, under that five-column headline. Problem was, the headline read "Army Copter Downed West of Baghdad in Hotbed of Anti-U.S. Sentiment," and the clarification appeared almost as an aside, in the 17th paragraph of a story otherwise far removed from the deadly explosion on Palestine Street.

The editors who decided to handle the clarification this way may not know the term, but this was a classic example of the rowback. The one definition I could find for this ancient technique, from journalism educator Melvin Mencher, describes a rowback as "a story that attempts to correct a previous story without indicating that the prior story had been in error or without taking responsibility for the error." A less charitable definition might read, "a way that a newspaper can cover its butt without admitting it was ever exposed."

Instead of choosing to call attention to it's mistake, the New York Times would rather focus on the "Hotbed". Are you surprised that they didn't thrown in "quagmire" for good measure?

The Public Editor editorial goes on to criticize the paper for other cases of rowback and journalistic jingoism.

Just like any other organization, the product of the company reflects the values of the organization. And just like any other organization, the Times leadership is responsible for setting the moral tone of the paper. I believe that the egos of the editors prevented them from understanding what is important to the American public. Or, to put it more succinctly, what is MORE important to the American public.

To me, it's important that if you maligned a few soldiers who are putting their lives on the line to defend yours...well, you need to do right by them and apologize loudly and clearly. Of course, the Times didn't exactly do that. I will bet that they would have made a bigger apology if they had printed eroneous information about John Kerry or George Soros. And THAT's where their values lie.

Whatever happened to people joining the Fourth Estate in order to "make a difference"?

And THAT's why I have been saving over $400 per year. The New York Times will have to change it's enormous biases before I will spend my money for it again.


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