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| Sunday, September 18, 2005

Calame's Columns on Krugman

Story One, Calame's eleventh column:


bcalame - 2:11 PM ET September 2, 2005


The Story of a Correction

        Opinions expressed on the editorial and Op-Ed pages of The New York Times aren’t part of the public editor’s mandate.  But the facts are.  And so are corrections of any misstatements.

        So when I discovered on Aug. 19 that Paul Krugman’s Op-Ed column that morning contained a sweeping assertion that was wrong in at least one respect, a formal correction was my sole concern.  The column, which dealt with the controversial 2000 presidential vote count in Florida, also contained plenty of opinions critical of the outcome — but they weren't the province of the public editor.

        The problem was this sentence: "Two different news media consortiums reviewed Florida's ballots; both found that a full manual recount would have given the election to Mr. [Al] Gore."  It was basically a sloppy generalization about a vote count that remains a hot-button issue for many readers.  It turns out that both of the news media consortiums did statewide manual recounts with varying standards, and some of those scenarios made George W. Bush the winner.

        For the sake of present and future readers, there seemed to be a need for a formal correction—one that is distinct and clearly labeled.  Publishing a formal correction does more than alert readers of that day’s paper to an error.  It triggers a process that appends it to the electronic versions of the article in NYTimes.com and in electronic databases.  And as NYTimes.com expands, I think the value to readers of having corrections appended promptly to articles becomes quite significant.

        But Mr. Krugman has been reluctant to formally correct his misstatement, starting when I raised the issue with Gail Collins, editor of the editorial page, on the day his column appeared.  He wanted to use his Aug. 22 column, it seemed to me, to explain the misstatement without admitting any errors.  He focused on the consortium led by The Miami Herald, and he acknowledged that Mr. Bush had won one of three statewide manual recount scenarios it conducted.  But, absent a formal correction, the information didn’t get appended to his flawed Aug. 19 column.

        When I pressed Mr. Krugman to do a formal correction after his Aug. 22 column, he agreed to run one at the bottom of his Friday, Aug. 26, column.  In that correction, he reiterated that two of the Miami Herald’s three statewide recounts had shown Mr. Gore to be the winner.  He also formally corrected an erroneous 2004 Ohio voter turnout percentage that a Times reader had brought to my attention two days earlier.

        After the formal correction was published, I started checking out comments I had picked up in discussions earlier in that week with puzzled newspaper editors who had been involved in the two recount projects.

        There were two problems with the formal correction about the recounts, I discovered.  It was wrong on the results of the Miami Herald statewide manual recounts.  And it didn’t deal with the fact that the original Aug. 19 generalization, the Aug. 22 column and the formal correction all erred in describing the findings of the other news media consortium (in which The Times was a participant).

        The Miami Herald actually did statewide manual recounts under four different standards for the validity of ballots.  Two showed Mr. Bush the winner and two gave the election to Mr. Gore.  The other consortium had six scenarios for its statewide manual recounts.  Mr. Gore prevailed in five of those, but Mr. Bush was the winner in one—taking another slice out of Mr. Krugman’s earlier sweeping generalizations.

        (These statewide manual recounts by the consortiums didn't get as much attention in 2001 as those they did to show the outcome if the U.S. Supreme Court hadn't intervened. The intervention stopped the state supreme court's plan for a manual recount in all counties except several that would have been exempted for various reasons.  If the plan had been used, The Miami Herald consortium found that Mr. Bush would have won under three of its standards and the fourth would have given Mr. Gore a three-vote victory margin.)

        In passing the details on the statewide manual recounts to Mr. Krugman and Ms. Collins Monday, Aug. 29, I urged them to run a formal correction to clear up the whole tangle.  “My first reaction,” Mr. Krugman responded by e-mail, “is that we’re really down to small points, which have no bearing on the original point of my remark about recounts—which was, after all, that the election was so close that even modest vote suppression was crucial.” As for Mr. Bush winning one of the six recounts done by the other news media consortium, Mr. Krugman said in another e-mail, “I thought that was a minor detail—frankly I can’t believe that anyone really thinks it’s important….”

        Ironically, Mr. Krugman can make—and has made—a case that he was misled by the Miami Herald’s failure to detect and correct an omission in its April 4, 2001, article on the recounts conducted by its consortium.  That article, which inadvertently omitted the results of one scenario that Mr. Bush won, made it appear that two had gone to Mr. Gore and only one to his opponent.  Former Miami Herald editors who handled the article said they can’t explain the omission or why the same writer’s shorter version disseminated by the parent company’s wire service covered all four scenarios.  The wire story appeared in The Washington Post and other newspapers on April 4.

        But if the Miami Herald. had caught and corrected its omission back in 2001, Mr. Krugman might have been spared at least some of the tangle in which he finds himself now.  One would think that possibility would give him some appreciation for what a formal correction could mean to readers of his column.



Story 2. Calame's twelfth column

bcalame - 10:43 AM ET September 16, 2005
Columnist Correction Policy Isn't Being Applied to Krugman

        An Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times who makes an error "is expected to promptly correct it in the column." That's the established policy of Gail Collins, editor of the editorial page.  Her written policy encourages "a uniform approach, with the correction made at the bottom of the piece."

        Two weeks have passed since my previous post spelled out the errors made by columnist Paul Krugman in writing about news media recounts of the 2000 Florida vote for president.  Mr. Krugman still hasn't been required to comply with the policy by publishing a formal correction.  Ms. Collins hasn't offered any explanation.

        As a result, readers of nytimes.com who simply search for "Krugman" won't find any indication that there are uncorrected errors in the columns the query turns up.  Nor will those who access Mr. Krugman's columns in an electronic database such as Nexis or Factiva.  Corrections would have been appended in all those places if Mr. Krugman had complied with Ms. Collins' policy and corrected the errors in his column in the print version of The Times.  (Essentially, to become part of the official archive of The Times, material has to have been published in the print paper.)

        All Mr. Krugman has offered so far is a faux correction.  Each Op-Ed columnist has a page in nytimes.com that includes his or her past columns and biographical information.  Mr. Krugman has been allowed to post a note on his page that acknowledges his initial error, but doesn't explain that his initial correction of that error was also wrong.  Since it hasn't been officially published, that posting doesn't cause the correction to be appended to any of the relevant columns.

        If the problem is that Mr. Krugman doesn't want to give up precious space in his column for a correction, there are alternatives.  Perhaps some space could be found elsewhere on the Op-Ed page so that readers—especially those using electronic versions of his pieces -- could get the accurate information they deserve.

        A bottom-line question: Does a corrections policy not enforced damage The Times's credibility more than having no policy at all?

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