Media Matters notes Exec Editor Bill Keller's response to errors in 2005: 'It's amazing that some at this paper believe fact-checking is someone else's responsibility'...
By Brad Friedman on 2/26/2010, 3:48pm PT  

The 'rave reviews' just keep pouring in for the massive fails by New York Times Senior Editor for Standards Greg Brock and Public Editor (what they call their ombudsman) Clark Hoyt to recommend corrections for the repeated misreporting of the ACORN video "pimp" hoax.

At least one of them is absolutely devastating in highlighting both the extraordinary hypocrisy and sheer stupidity demonstrated by the "paper of record" in refusing to set the record straight on its incontrovertibly inaccurate coverage of the false "pimp" story peddled by rightwing propagandists last year...

As The BRAD BLOG has been covering for weeks now, neither Brock nor Hoyt were able to offer evidence for the paper's repeatedly inaccurate reporting, characterizing rightwing con-man James O'Keefe as having played his now-infamous "pimp" character in the offices of ACORN on those widely-circulated, highly-doctored, heavily-overdubbed, secretly-taped videos despite both his and his employer/publisher Andrew Breitbart's deceptive assertions to the contrary when selling their blockbuster story to the gullible media and the public last September.

Hoyt, incredibly, even asserted to me via email that even though he's been proven wrong (and even now that both Hannah Giles who played the "prostitute" and Breitbart himself have admitted to the fraud) that he does not "see that a correction is in order, because that would require conclusive evidence that The Times was wrong, which I haven't seen."

Of course, he has now seen it, and has even conceded that O'Keefe is "journalistically unethical." Nonetheless, he has still refused to recommend any corrections, advising only that "Times editors ... avoid language that says or suggests that O'Keefe was dressed as a pimp when he captured the ACORN employees on camera."

Media Matter's Senior Fellow Jamison Foser responded to that point in a quick blog item earlier this week by observing that the Times seems to have "it backwards." By Hoyt's logic, he writes, "it seems the New York Times requires a higher standard of proof for retracting claims than for making them. Simply astounding."

Hoyt further went on, in support of his not recommending retractions and corrections, to tell me that "The Times would need to find out for itself what actually happened at those Acorn offices. It is up to the paper to decide whether the investment of effort is worthwhile."

To which attorney Ernest Canning (a regular BRAD BLOG contributor) aptly responded in comments: "Odd, Mr. Hoyt. I thought real journalists were supposed to make an 'investment of effort' in order to determine 'what actually happened' before they run a story."

But the two of the most extraordinary statements by the Times' Editors were decimated by Foser in his weekly column today which covered all of this in an absolutely devastating indictment against the Times. His piece is a must read, so please do, and then come back!

Done? Okay...

Here are the two statements drawing the most notice over the last 24 to 72 hours on the Internets. First, Senior Editor for Standards Greg Brock's initial response when called on for a correction to a January 30th, 2010 Times article in which Jim Rutenberg and Campbell Robertson mis-reported: "Mr. O'Keefe made his biggest national splash last year when he dressed up as a pimp and trained his secret camera on counselors with the liberal community group Acorn..."

Wrote Brock via email, shockingly, in response to that request for correction:

Our article included that description because Mr. O'Keefe himself explained how he was dressed --- and appeared on a live Fox show wearing what HE said was the same exact costume he wore to ACORN's offices. ... If there is a correction to be made, it seems it would start with Mr. O'Keefe himself. We believe him. Therefore there is nothing for us to correct.

The "live Fox show" appearance Brock linked to was this one.

In rationalizing all of this, in support of the Senior Editor for Standards, Public Editor Clark Hoyt was even more shocking in his response when he said about the Rutenberg/Campbell piece [emphasis his]:

The story says O'Keefe dressed up as a pimp and trained his hidden camera on Acorn counselors. It does not say he did those two things at the same time

Well, Foser justifiably destroys both points by pointing out how the paper's own Executive Editor Bill Keller responded to similar issues that arose two years ago regarding similarly, and repeatedly, misreported stories in the Times. Not surprisingly, those misreported stories by the "Liberal" NYTimes, also had devastating negative impacts for both "the Left" and the country.

Foser describes Keller's response to a "Credibility Group" which had been convened to make recommendations in regard to a number of serious problems in the paper's reporting (not the least of which were a year of inaccurate front page reports by Judith Miller contending that Iraq had WMD, in support of the need to launch our subsequent war against them).

Explains Foser:

In response (PDF) to the Credibility Group's report, Keller wrote:

It's amazing that some people at this paper believe fact-checking is someone else's responsibility. It is not. Accuracy is everyone's responsibility.
Mistakes that are not corrected live on in the archives, and get repeated in subsequent stories.
I have asked Al [Siegal] to consult with Len Apcar to make sure that corrections are posted as promptly as possible on Web versions of our stories...

Unfortunately, that's just talk. When it comes to actually fact-checking and posting corrections when necessary, the Times' track record in recent years has been abysmal.

Foser goes on to point to both our coverage of the NYT/ACORN "Pimp" Hoax scandal, and Media Matter's own similar case in 2007 when they had found multiple misreports from 1994, of what were characterized as $9 million in inappropriate loans to Arkansas' Tyson Food when Clinton was still the governor there. But the loans never happened and it took "more than a month after the initial false report" before the paper made a correction in its pages. But in 2007, Media Matters found at least four instances in which the story was still misreported in various articles on the Times' website without correction.

Writes Foser in his stinging indictment:

The best you can say for the Times' failure to correct those 1994 articles is that the paper has been shockingly negligent. The current controversy over the paper's coverage of conservative activist James O'Keefe's ACORN videos cannot be characterized in such charitable terms.

He goes on to dissect two of the key responses from the Times' Brock and Hoyt on the ACORN hoax:

According to Friedman, when contacted about the Times' baseless reporting that O'Keefe was dressed in the gaudy costume while meeting with ACORN employees, New York Times "Senior Editor/Standards" Greg Brock responded:

Our article included that description because Mr. O'Keefe himself explained how he was dressed --- and appeared on a live Fox show wearing what HE said was the same exact costume he wore to ACORN's offices. ... If there is a correction to be made, it seems it would start with Mr. O'Keefe himself. We believe him. Therefore there is nothing for us to correct.

That would be a reasonable response --- if the Times had reported that O'Keefe said he visited the offices dressed in the costume. But that isn't what the Times reported: The paper reported that O'Keefe did visit the offices dressed in the costume. Brock's suggestion that the Times was right to state that as independent, verified fact based on nothing more than O'Keefe's word is simply stunning. But it only got worse when New York Times' public editor (that's what the Times calls its ombudsman) Clark Hoyt got involved. According to Friedman, Hoyt told him:

Under the circumstances, I am recommending to Times editors that they avoid language that says or suggests that O'Keefe was dressed as a pimp when he captured the ACORN employees on camera. I still don't see that a correction is in order, because that would require conclusive evidence that The Times was wrong, which I haven't seen.

That is an absolutely amazing statement. Hoyt clearly agrees that there is no evidence that O'Keefe "was dressed as a pimp" when he filmed the ACORN employees, otherwise he wouldn't recommend that the Times avoid using such language. But he doesn't think the Times owes its readers a correction, because he hasn't seen "conclusive evidence" the paper was wrong. That's ridiculous: The Times could (and should) easily append a correction stating that there is no evidence O'Keefe was wearing the costume --- that doesn't require "conclusive evidence that the Times was wrong," it simply requires acknowledging that the Times made an assertion without evidence and is retracting the assertion.

Hoyt essentially said The New York Times has --- and should have --- higher standards of evidence for running retractions than for making assertions in the first place. That is exactly the opposite of the way a trustworthy news organization would behave.

And it fits a pattern of behavior in which the Times seems to look for any excuse not to correct faulty reporting.
None of this is meant to deny that the Times is capable of producing high-quality journalism or that it often does so. The problem is that when the Times stubbornly refuses to correct glaring errors of fact, it undermines that journalism by making it impossible for readers to trust the paper. The Times' reluctance to run necessary corrections presumably stems from a concern that its credibility would be damaged if it is seen as mistake-prone. But the paper's credibility stands to suffer far more if it is seen as refusing to correct mistakes. As Keller told [Los Angeles Times reporter Jim] Rainey [in regard to another related incident]: "One thing that sets a serious newspaper apart from most other institutions in our society is that we own up to our mistakes with corrections, editor's notes and other accountability devices, including the public editor's column."

But, apparently, Keller was just kidding.

* * *

A few more noteworthy points of fallout over the last day or so --- to add to the previous blistering blogosphere critiques of Hoyt's position that we shared earlier this week --- before we head into the weekend (with more much more "fun" stuff coming out this next week!)...

• Dave Johnson, Senior Fellow at Campaign for America's Future also rings in with cross-posts at Blog for Our Future and Huffington Post to note that "NY Times Owes Us an Apology for ACORN Smear."

• Popular blogger and U.C. Berkeley economics professor, Brad DeLong, who earlier in the week, after reading Hoyt's emails to me, called for him to step down as Ombudsman, piled on again a day later with:

The Stupidest Man Alive contest is now closed for all time. The winner--who should make his apologies to the Emperor immediately--is Clark Hoyt of the New York Times

• DeLong points us to Neddy Merril's for-grammar-geeks only dissection of Hoyt's preposterous use of the word "and" in his now quickly-becoming-notorious linguistic rationalization.

• NYU media studies professor Mark Crispin Miller jumped in to echo to DeLong's sentiment, with a terse "NYTimes must DUMP Clark Hoyt!"

• And last but certainly not least, Media Matters' Eric Boehlert continues to plug away on this indefatigably. His latest blog item on it today asks whether Breitbart knew about the "pimp" hoax before publishing O'Keefe's videos or not. Of course, as reported earlier in this series, Breitbart claimed, falsely, in his own Sep. 21, 2009 Washington Times column that O'Keefe had been "dressed as a pimp" while "asking for - and getting - help for various illegal activities" from ACORN workers.

He has since all but recanted his own reporting publicly, at least with a few sarcastic admissions that he was wrong. But did he lie? Or did he not know before he misreported it. Was he also scammed by O'Keefe? In either case, he has yet to issue one of those retractions he demands from everyone else.

Writes Boehlert:

Did he, in fact, not know that O'Keefe wasn't dressed as a pimp while meeting with ACORN workers? Instead, was Breitbart mislead by his protégé’s undercover videos and only found out the truth much later? And is that why Breitbart's so reluctant to come clean about the hoax, because he'd have to admit that even he got duped, and that as the editor of the site that published the ACORN videos, even he didn't know the truth about their contents?

Any such an admission by Breitbart would be devastating. Because remember that for months he personally vouched for the videos. He's claimed that he's told "the truth" every step of the way about the ACORN clips. But what if we find out that Breitbart himself didn't actually know what was on the tapes. What if we find out that Breitbart, like everyone else, got fooled by the ACORN pimp hoax and mistakenly assumed, after watching O'Keefe's deceptively edited clips, that O'Keefe strolled into ACORN offices wearing the outlandish pimp outfit.

If we find out Breitbart himself was duped by the ACORN clips --- if he, as the chief promoter, didn't even know the truth about the contents --- then I think we can close the books on the whole ACORN video caper, as well as Breitbart's credibility.

But I'd argue that if Breitbart now claims that he didn't know before hand, his credibility is still shot, given that he was the publisher of these videos, used them to launch his new site, and would have failed to have done due diligence before publishing them if he didn't know that O'Keefe never dressed as he describes him while getting advice from low-level ACORN workers.

This is, remember, the guy who has called for corrections from just about everybody in the world --- at least if they are perceived by him as non-wingnut media outlets --- for any error, large or small, that he feels adversely affects the hard-right Republican agenda he is propagandizing for. All the while he doesn't bother to call for corrections from the same outlets, like the New York Times, CNN, NPR, and others, when they grossly misreport something that works in his favor.

And on that note, it should similarly be pointed out that Breitbart also, hypocritically, doesn't bother to demand corrections from wingnut outlets when they make the very same errors that non-wingnut outlets do. E.g,, his laughably named "Big Journalism" site demanded retractions from non-wingnut outlets who incorrectly reported that "bugging" and/or "phone tapping" was involved in his employee O'Keefe's recent federal felony arrest for allegedly trying to "maliciously interfere" with the phone system of a Democratic U.S. Senator.

While, in truth, we don't yet know whether or not Breitbart's employee O'Keefe was attempting to bug the Sentor's phones or not, we certainly didn't know that he was doing so when it was reported by a number of outlets as breaking news. But where Breitbart and followers called, appropriately, for retractions from non-winger outlets, they left Rupert Murdoch's NYPost and the whackjobs at National Review Online --- who similarly misreported the story --- off the hook. Ah, the tangled webs that spiders weave...

But to help keep eyes on the far more important prize, I'll finish with one more quote from Foser's column today on all of this: "Unfortunately, the Times seems to be doing very little to give readers a reason to trust its journalism."

* * *

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