Has anyone ever said something about you that wasn’t true? Something that, if people believed it, would significantly damage your reputation? How would you feel if you saw that falsehood printed on the front page of the Los Angeles Times? Would it make things right if the paper later retracted the false statement — with a brief correction buried inside the paper?
For some, this is not a hypothetical question. Just ask L. Paul Bremer III, Antonin Scalia or the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.
Last year, The Times suggested on Page 1 that Bremer was a coward: “L. Paul Bremer III, the civilian administrator for Iraq, left without even giving a final speech to the country — almost as if he were afraid to look in the eye the people he had ruled for more than a year.”
False. Not only had Bremer given a farewell speech, CNN had broadcast key parts of it.
In the lead sentence of another front-page article, The Times claimed that Justice Scalia had acted unethically by speaking to a group that — according to The Times — was backing a lawsuit against gay rights: “Justice Antonin Scalia gave a keynote dinner speech in Philadelphia for an advocacy group waging a legal battle against gay rights.”
False. The group had nothing to do with that lawsuit.
In yet another front-page article, about the Swift boat veterans who opposed John Kerry’s presidential candidacy, The Times claimed: “None of the men in the Swift boat group behind the anti-Kerry ad served on Kerry’s patrol boat during the war.”
False. Steven Gardner, a Swift Boat Veterans for Truth member, served on a patrol boat with Kerry for 2 1/2 of the four months that Kerry spent in country.
Each of these false assertions damaged someone’s reputation, and each ran on the front page of the L.A. Times. In each case, The Times later ran a small correction inside the paper — alongside corrections of trivial errors, such as misspelled names. In each case, only a fraction of the people who read the original article ever saw the correction.
This is business as usual — not just at the L.A. Times but at newspapers nationwide. Yet for people whose reputations are harmed by false assertions, business as usual isn’t good enough. How do you think L.A. Times editors would feel if their reputations were unfairly smeared on the front page of a national newspaper? Would they be satisfied with a small correction hidden inside the paper? Not likely.
The Times can prove that it takes the journalistic value of fairness seriously by placing noteworthy corrections in a more prominent space. A substantive correction should be at least as conspicuous as the original article in which the error appeared. A correction of a substantial error in a front-page article should run on Page 1. The policy would make it more likely readers would actually see corrections of significant errors. It would give reporters and editors greater incentive to get stories right. And it would encourage more vigorous scrutiny for political bias, latent or overt.
The mistakes cited above follow a consistent ideological pattern. I could fill this entire Sunday Opinion section with similar examples. Errors like these do not result from any conspiracy to distort the truth. Rather, they are the natural result of a newsroom that I’m willing to bet is staffed by people who largely share similar views.
All humans have opinions and beliefs, and with them come ideological blind spots. Most people are better at catching errors when the errors conflict with their own point of view. Journalists are no different. This is why newspapers should strive to have a mix of viewpoints in the newsroom. If The Times staff reflected a wider variety of political perspectives, the errors cited above might never have appeared.
By balancing the editorial staff’s ideological makeup, The Times could minimize its factual errors. By more prominently correcting errors when they do occur, the paper would better inform its readers and begin repairing its reputation as a reliable news source.