One reason that I read the NY Times
September 25, 2005
Even Geraldo Deserves a Fair Shake
By BYRON CALAME
ONE of the real tests of journalistic integrity is being fair to someone who might be best described by a four-letter word.
The New York Times flunked such a test in rejecting a demand by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News for correction of a sentence about him in a column by the paper's chief television critic.
The underlying issue arose from the penultimate paragraph of Alessandra Stanley's TV Watch column on Sept. 5 about the coverage of Hurricane Katrina: "Some reporters helped stranded victims because no police officers or rescue workers were around. (Fox's Geraldo Rivera did his rivals one better: yesterday, he nudged an Air Force rescue worker out of the way so his camera crew could tape him as he helped lift an older woman in a wheelchair to safety.)"
Mr. Rivera denied that he had "nudged" anyone and demanded that The Times publish a correction. Mr. Rivera and Fox said a videotape of the segment that Ms. Stanley had watched on Sept. 4 shows no nudge. The segment was then rebroadcast on "The O'Reilly Factor" on Fox, and a videotape has been made available to The Times and other media outlets.
Lashing out at Ms. Stanley on the O'Reilly show, Mr. Rivera denounced her as "Jayson Blair in a cocktail dress," referring to the young reporter who brought scandal to The Times in 2003. If her name were Alexander instead of Alessandra, the flamboyant newsman said during another appearance, "I'd go to that building on 43rd Street; I'd shout up to the window, 'Hey, come on down here, punk. I want you to tell me that to my face.' "
The Times informed Fox on Sept. 7 that no correction would be published. Bill Keller, the executive editor of The Times, personally made the final decision after "multiple viewings of the videotape in question," he told me in a Sept. 8 e-mail message that defended his ruling and was later provided to other journalists.
Several dozen readers - including some who said they aren't admirers of Mr. Rivera - have questioned the fairness of The Times's decision and asked the public editor to look into it.
I have been involved in scores of correction disputes over the years at another newspaper, but this one is unusual in that there is very little to argue about. Since Ms. Stanley based her comments on what she saw on the screen Sept. 4, the videotape of that segment means everyone involved is looking at exactly the same evidence.
My viewings of the videotape - at least a dozen times, including one time frame by frame - simply doesn't show me any "nudge" of any Air Force rescuer by Mr. Rivera. (Ms. Stanley declined my invitation to watch the tape with me.) I also reviewed all of the so-called outtakes shot by Mr. Rivera's camera crew at the Holy Angels Apartments in New Orleans on the morning of Sept. 4. Neither the video nor the audio revealed any nudge of an Air Force rescuer. As for the Air Force, the matter "is not an issue," a spokesman told me last week.
Stripped of its speculation in defense of Ms. Stanley, Mr. Keller's e-mail to me explaining his decision winds up acknowledging that the "nudge" she reported seeing is not shown in the videotape. Here, with my emphasis added, is that key paragraph of his e-mail:
"It was a semi-close call, in that the video does not literally show how Mr. Rivera insinuated himself between the wheelchair-bound storm victim and the Air Force rescuers who were waiting to carry her from the building. Whether Mr. Rivera gently edged the airman out of the way with an elbow (literally 'nudged'), or told him to step aside, or threw a body block, or just barged into an opening - it's hard to tell, since it happened just off-camera."
So if Ms. Stanley couldn't have seen the nudge, why not publish a correction? Mr. Keller's message unfortunately turns to a line of reasoning that raises, for me, a basic question of journalistic fairness. He suggests, "frankly," that in light of Mr. Rivera's reaction to the review, Ms. Stanley "would have been justified in assuming" - and therefore writing, apparently - that Mr. Rivera used "brute force" rather than merely a "nudge" on Sept. 4. (One of the on-air threats cited by Mr. Keller, however, actually was made by Bill O'Reilly.)
I find it disturbing that any Times editor would come so close to implying - almost in a tit-for-tat sense - that Mr. Rivera's bad behavior essentially entitles the paper to rely on assumptions and refuse to correct an unsupported fact.
Mr. Keller's final reason for rejecting a correction was that Ms. Stanley, "who is writing as a critic, with the license that title brings - was within bounds in her judgment." He elaborated: "Ms. Stanley's point was that Mr. Rivera was show-boating - that he was being pushy, if not literally pushing - and I think an impartial viewer of the footage will see it that way."
Based on the videotape and outtakes I saw, Ms. Stanley certainly would have been entitled to opine that Mr. Rivera's actions were showboating or pushy. But a "nudge" is a fact, not an opinion. And even critics need to keep facts distinct from opinions.
Meanwhile, in the opinion section of The Times, the corrections policy of Gail Collins, the editor of the editorial page, is not being fully enforced. As I have written on my Web journal, Paul Krugman has not been required to correct, in the paper, recent acknowledged factual errors in his column about the 2000 election in Florida.
The Times has long been a trailblazer in its commitment to correcting errors. This is no time to let those standards slip - even when well-known critics and columnists are involved.
Readers and Corrections
This week marks the one-year anniversary of The Times's decision to divide corrections into two groupings on Page A2, a change that had been advocated by readers and the previous public editor.
The goal was to make it easier for readers to find corrections of "substantive errors ...that have materially affected the reader's understanding of a news development," The Times said in announcing the change last Sept. 30. The substantive errors would be addressed under the traditional heading, "Corrections," the paper said. "Narrower errors - those involving spelling, for example, or dates and historical references - will be corrected under a second heading, 'For the Record.' "
My predecessor's idea of trying to keep the "underbrush" of minor corrections from obscuring the substantive ones remains appealing a year later. But a few readers have recently raised questions about the classification process. "I would say once every three or four days I am struck by the fact that a correction called 'For the Record' is significant and substantive," Robert Litt, a partner in the Washington office of the law firm Arnold & Porter LLP, told me in an e-mail.
So I have taken a look at the process and reviewed all the corrections published in both categories over the past 30 days. I found it striking that only two "Corrections" of substantive errors had been published during that period. And as I went through the 239 "For the Record" corrections, I came across several that seemed to deserve the attention-getting placement provided to the substantive category.
Here, from Sept. 10, is just one: "Because of an editing error, an article on Wednesday about the findings of the independent panel that investigated the United Nations' oil-for-food program in Iraq referred incorrectly to kickbacks and surcharges that it said amounted to $10.99 billion in illicit profits for Saddam Hussein. They occurred outside the program; the payments were not connected to it." (Other examples are posted on my Web Journal.)
Perhaps the problem is caused by the undefined middle ground left between the existing definitions of substantive and narrow errors. Based on the last 30 days, my sense is that many of the errors falling between the two definitions are being treated as "For the Record" corrections.
The one-year mark could be a good time for the veteran editors who handle corrections to apply their long experience to a review of the existing definitions. I hope they would give serious consideration to broadening the definitions as a way to reduce the gap between them.
I would like to see the substantive category expanded to include errors that have practical importance for readers. If there's an error in information that seems likely to become the basis for action or decision-making by more than a few dozen readers, I think it deserves the prominence offered by the current substantive category. One of the fine-tuning chores, of course, would be to calibrate how many users of the information should be required to qualify for greater prominence.
The public editor serves as the readers' representative. His opinions and conclusions are his own. His column appears at least twice monthly in this section.