The NYT makes a mistake, and Bryan and I have a spirited discussion about it

I had a dental appointment at 8 this morning, which meant I arrived there uncaffeinated, intending to eat afterward.

To keep from dozing off while the dentist and hygienist were out of the room, I looked at Twitter, and saw this from Bryan:

And I’m like, say what? Has @realdonaldtrump taken over Bryan’s feed? I glanced quickly over the link provided, but couldn’t tell what he was trying to convey by the time people came back into the room and made me open my mouth again.

When I got into my car to leave, I saw I had a couple of direct messages from Bryan, to this effect:

I hope Palin sues the hell out of the NYT.


I mean, if you want “fake news” it’s right there.

Huh? I replied,

You have the advantage of me, sir. As the foremast jacks would say, what are you on about?

I then drove downtown to get some breakfast. And coffee. When I got there, I found the following messages:

The NYT “Editorial Board” wrote a piece about the Scalise shooting. They specifically blame Palin for Loughner shooting Giffords. Explicitly.b3f68215788bf24bfc7cc42223023a42_400x400

However, it has been specifically, demonstrably proven that Loughner had no idea about Palin, AND THAT WAS IN THE NYT back in 2011.

So the accusation in today’s editorial is demonstrably false according to the NYT itself.

Which, to my legal mind, is evidence of actual malice and enough to support a libel claim.

Do Editorial Boards not run things by lawyers on a regular basis? I can’t imagine any lawyer would have let them make this claim in today’s editorial.

… which was lot to take in during one’s first cup. I replied:

Well, I haven’t seen the reference, but obviously, no one intended to make a false claim. No one knew that they were doing so. They would have zero motivation for doing that. And when you don’t know something you’re referring to is problematic, why on earth would you consult a lawyer?

From Bryan:

Just saying, this editorial is completely counterproductive to having both sides come together, not to mention utterly wrong.

And it was exactly what I predicted and exactly why I hoped the shooter wasn’t left-wing.

It’s another example of why lots of folks don’t trust big news outlets.

You can’t be “the paper of record” and get something factually wrong six year later.


Well, there are two things going on here. There’s the point the NYT is making, and there’s the error that was made in a reference to a different case. Critics see a connection between the two. I don’t.

“You can’t be ‘the paper of record’ and get something factually wrong six year later.” Of COURSE you can. Let’s suppose for a moment the NYT is the best paper in the world, as it believes it is. It would still make errors, regularly. You seem to be assuming omniscience on he part of the editors, and therefor not only intent, but malicious intent. You show me a long profile about this Loughner guy, and I’m taking your word that somewhere down in it, there’s something that negates the reference in that editorial. Then, you seem to assume that everyone who works at the Times, being omniscient, HAD to know that that fact existed, buried in a profile that appeared in the paper SIX YEARS AGO. Do you not see how unlikely your assumptions are?


It’s not hard to avoid saying false things you know are false.


“It’s not hard to avoid saying false things you know are false.” That’s 100 percent true. But I fail to see what that assertion has to do with the present case.


I assume the Editors of the NYT are informed about important things reported in their own newspaper. This wasn’t an obscure event.

I don’t think you have to be omniscient to know there was zero evidence linking Loughner to Palin.


I think our disconnect arises from the differences in our experiences. An attorney has months, sometimes years, to pursue and research anything and everything that might bear upon the case he’s presenting. Try going from concept to publication in half an hour.


Maybe. Might not be the best defense in court, though.


The fact that Gifford got shot was not an obscure event. The footnote you refer to most certainly was. I couldn’t have told you the guy’s name was Loughner…

 “Might not be the best defense in court, though.” Actually, it is. Without intent — and if you think about this, you HAVE to see no one would make such a mistake intentionally (and I’m still taking your word that it’s a mistake, since Google isn’t helping me find independent evidence outside of Breitbart et al.) — you can’t have malice.

I then drove to work. By the time I got here, Bryan had written:

I think the fact that it was in their own newspaper is enough to show malice. Maybe a jury would disagree with me, but I think it’s certainly enough to get to a jury and survive a summary judgment motion. If Pailin asked me, I would take the case.

Could be some prize money in it.

And as long as I didn’t have former editorial page editors on my jury, I’d feel pretty good about my chances.

Oh, and related: This editorial is how you get more Trump. If you are someone who is anti-Trump, you should discourage this sort of erroneous editorial. It’s going to make it easy for him to run against the NYT et al. when they continue to make it easy for him to do so with editorials like this.

I’m against this editorial for that reason (it enables Trump), for the reason that it breeds distrust and reinforces existing distrust, and breeds contempt between opposing viewpoints. Literally no good comes from this awful piece.

As you can see, the NYT has now issued a correction, completely retracting their false claim – so you can stop taking my word for it that it was an incorrect claim.

Oh, it it fits into my previous point (a few weeks ago) about the “fake news” being this paradigm: (1) false story trumpeted out from large media source and then repeated by lots of other sources; (2) it’s proven to be factually wrong; (3) retraction/correction is made, but it doesn’t get the same fanfare the original wrong statement did; (4) general public never remembers the correction.

Ok. I’m off my soapbox. I’ll be getting back to some actual legal work now. Cheers.

Now that I was at the office and on my laptop (making typing less laborious), I concluded:

“I think the fact that it was in their own newspaper is enough to show malice. Maybe a jury would disagree with me…” It certainly would if a single person who had a clue about the newspaper business was on the jury. Because the expectation that the editors HAD to know about that point of fact buried in a profile six years ago is one of the wildest things I’ve heard this week.

Bryan, I want to drop this, but every time I get back to Twitter I see multiple assertions I have to address… “This editorial is how you get more Trump.” Yeah, and it would be a bad idea to intentionally publish editorials that contain errors — except no one would be crazy enough to do that! Can’t you see the fundamental flaw in making that point?

As for your complaint about the corrections process, another thing that could only come from a non-journalist (seriously, what is your practical suggestion for an alternative), please examine your words: “false story trumpeted out from large media source.” What “false story?” “Trumpeted how?” One would think that “trumpeting” would at least, at LEAST entail a headline, and to in any way match your indignation here, the headline would have to be large, and would have to say, “Sarah Palin goes around encouraging mass killers.” Instead, this involved an erroneous assertion of fact that was NOT the point of the piece. And your evidence that it was malicious is that there was, once upon a time (six freaking years ago!) there was a lengthy news story that also, deep down, contained something that refuted that fact — as assertion of fact that, just like the current instance, was not the main point being made, or even close to it! It would be outrageous to expect every editor at a paper to remember every HEADLINE that had appeared in the paper in the past six years, much less every single assertion of fact that could be found in every single story!

You know, there’d be a lot fewer arguments like this if, as part of everyone’s civic education, everybody in the country were required to work at a newspaper for a month. It would stop arguments like this before they start…

Of course, my solution is impractical, because to fully get what I’m saying, you’d have to be a senior editor for that month — and you can’t be that without years of experience, experience that would necessarily make the month unnecessary. Here’s the bottom line: To an editor worth his salt, every error is intolerable, and inexcusable, and must never happen again. But of course, it will. And all you can do is correct it. Used to be, you had a whole day to sort things out and make the correction. Now, if you haven’t completely refuted yourself within a couple of hours, the world has a coronary…

Folks, I don’t care what you think of The New York Times, but I’m here to tell you, it is a credible institution — about as credible as you’re likely to find in this sin-stained world.

And its editors — like every editor I’ve ever known or worked with — would rather get a hard punch in the face than make a mistake like that. It’s excruciatingly painful. Any editor I know spends his or her days and sleepless nights worrying about errors like that, and doing everything he or she can to avoid it.

Think for a moment: What in the world do you think would be an editor’s motivation to screw up like that intentionally? I can’t imagine, but maybe you’ll come up with a reason that will surprise me.

Whatever else you come away from this discussion with, I hope you absorb that one point…

33 thoughts on “The NYT makes a mistake, and Bryan and I have a spirited discussion about it

  1. Holly Gatling

    The NYT edited and re-published the editorial, presumable to ward off a lawsuit by Palin. There was without doubt reckless disregard of the truth.

  2. Bryan Caskey

    A nice discussion with a good friend. It would only have been better had it been later in the day over some maderia.

    The bottle stands by you, sir.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I’m just glad it didn’t lead to insults. I might have gotten carried away and accused you of enthusiasm, or worse. I’m gratified I did not…

      1. Bryan Caskey

        I respect your opinion as a man of learning, virtue, and as an elder. I also know you’re predisposed to give newspapers the benefit of the doubt. I thought it would be good to bring it to your attention, to bat it around with you a bit, knowing that you would not agree with my point of view.

        I never thought it would lead to insults. That’s not how gentlemen discuss important issues, and for good reason.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          I don’t know about benefit of the doubt, but I know in my bones, in my soul, the dread an editor feels of making such a mistake.

          It is very like th’ impervious horrors of a leeward shore…

        2. Brad Warthen Post author

          You know, my daughter brought me back from Portugal what I feel quite sure is a bottle of capital port.

          Next time we have such a discussion, we should crack it open, if Killick will allow it…

  3. Pat

    Why don’t we get a working definition of fake news. I don’t consider an error, immediately caught and corrected, fake news. I also don’t consider an incorrect statement a lie when made with complete belief that it is correct. Fake news, as with a lie, is made up and spread with intent to deceive. Just read a few items at Snopes and you’ll see what I’m talking about.
    My opinion of the NYT, as well as the Washington Post, is that they have been around over a hundred years and have journalistic standards they adhere to. I would trust them a thousand times more than these fly-by-night, propaganda machines that pop up overnight. A new news organization would have to be around awhile and show some evidence of factual, unbiased reporting before I would trust it.
    Aren’t journalists supposed to corroborate new by checking with three sources?

  4. Bart Rogers

    I well remember the uproar and flap about the “bulls eye” target and associating it with Gifford being shot by Loughner. At the time, it was a total stretch but it was during the time when everything Palin was front page news. I still remember the scene when the newspapers and other news organizations were waiting in line to obtain all of Palin’s emails and representatives from the NYT was one of the newspapers in line carting off box after box of printed emails.

    For information purposes, the “bulls eye” target was not an actual “bulls eye” as we understand and recognize one. It was a symbol used in surveying for spotting locations on a map. But, no matter, the fact that Gifford was one of the ones with a symbol over her name was sufficient reason to connect and attempt to lay blame on her for Loughner shooting Gifford. Even after it was proven he was not a right wing political radical but someone who was mentally unstable, obsessed with Gifford, the story still stuck. Once painted with the brush, the stain will remain with the person forever in the minds of some.

    The NYT most definitely went with the original story and the connection more than one time. The editors and staff at the NYT were participants in writing the articles and opinion pieces and in the eye of someone who is not an attorney or an editor, I find it difficult to believe the NYT didn’t bother to check, confirm, research, or do whatever was necessary to be accurate and truthful before writing the recent article. I also find it difficult to believe that the entire staff of reporters, editors, fact checkers, and others who were with the NYT when the Palin-Gifford-Loughner articles were written six years ago were not familiar with the original story and did nothing to try to correct it. I simply do not buy it.

    FWIW, I do read the NYT, WaPo, and other liberal leaning newspaper articles every day. I do not buy any excuse or retraction by the NYT because of the reputation of the “The Gray Lady”, the epitome or pinnacle of what a newspaper is supposed to be. Just because the NYT has been around for over 100 years does not mean they don’t make decisions to run with something like the Palin story again for sensationalism and believe they can be excused by printing a retraction.

    Palin was nothing more than the precursor for Donald Trump but that is not the issue. The issue is that Palin is entitled to defend herself against unprofessional actions and in this instance, slander, even by the NYT.

    This reminds me of one of my favorite Paul Newman movies, “Absence of Malice”. A reporter ran with a front page story that the Paul Newman character was being investigated about the death of a dock union leader. The story was written in a way that was misleading and it led to a series of unfortunate incidents for Newman’s character. The take away is that the story was “accurate but not true”. In the Palin story about the bulls eye symbol on Gifford was true but the symbol was not the force, reason, or influence behind Loughner shooting Gifford but it served the purpose of portraying Palin supporting and helping target Gifford. Now when considering the fact that Loughner’s motives had nothing to do with Palin’s bulls eye on her website because Loughner never saw it was barely covered by the NYT. Again, I simply do not believe the NYT’s retraction, apology, or claim they were not aware of the sensationalism from six years ago. And the recent story does not meet the criteria for an “absence of malice” claim by the NYT if that is how they choose to proceed with a defense of their actions.

    Sorry Brad, but this one doesn’t meet the bare minimum of truth.

    1. Doug Ross

      Agree 100% Bart. This one doesn’t even pass the sniff test. THEY REPRINTED THEIR OWN FALSE STATEMENT. It was wrong the first time and even worse the second time because they were either trying to deflect blame for the toxic environment they are helping to create or else knowingly putting the thought in readers minds that there was a connection to Palin/Giffords and hoping there wouldn’t be as much blowback. This goes beyond opinion into the realm of propaganda. The New York Times has an agenda and they are seeing that they must sacrifice honesty to remain financially solvent.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        I have no idea what you guys are talking about. What you are saying bears no resemblance to what happened, or how it happened.

        This is all very, very simple, but maybe it seems that way to me because I know exactly what is entailed in putting out a newspaper.

        Bart says, “Once painted with the brush, the stain will remain with the person forever in the minds of some.” That’s right. And obviously, it stayed with the person who wrote the editorial. He remembered that. And he paused to go check his memory, which is why there was a link to a story about it. I would link you to that story now, except that the Times removed it when it made it’s correction, rather than perpetuate that erroneous story it linked to.

        You want to get mad at somebody? Get mad at whoever maintained THAT site, and didn’t update it with a correction. (Bryan, can you remember what sort of news site that was? I only saw it once, at a glance, yesterday morning.) The NYT has done the responsible thing. Anyone who sees their editorial from now on will find the correction.

        It amazes me the things that y’all who have never edited a newspaper just “can’t believe,” because I know these things to as true and solid as the firmness of the Earth. This just absolutely bowls me over:
        I also find it difficult to believe that the entire staff of reporters, editors, fact checkers, and others who were with the NYT when the Palin-Gifford-Loughner articles were written six years ago were not familiar with the original story and did nothing to try to correct it. I simply do not buy it.
        Really? What do think, there’s an army involved in an editorial? You only need two to whip something like that out and put it in the paper, but let’s say that, since the Times is a huge operation, four or five people read it. You find it incredible that none of those people remembered a detail that was down in a profile of a killer than ran in the paper (somewhere other than the editorial pages for which these editors are responsible) six years before. I would be quite surprised if anyone did

        Do you guys have any idea how many words are contained in ONE day’s editions of the Times? And you’re talking about an edition of the paper that was more than 2,000 days ago.

        Furthermore, the story in question is 5,636 words long. It’s so long that I assure you, I almost certainly would not have read it, as a busy editor who had his own pages to deal with. I’m not going to read it now, because I’m not that interested in crazed killers and what motivates them.

        And for that reason, I have to ask — Bryan, where is the reference to the subject at hand in that profile? I tried searching for “Putin” and “crosshair” but got nothing.

        I mean, without reading that entire piece that I don’t want to read, I can’t even find the relevant fact when I know it’s there.

        And you guys want to hold someone responsible for knowing that that fact is buried in that 5,600-word piece that ran, somewhere in that huge paper (and I’m guessing this was on a Sunday; how many people do you know who read every word in the Sunday NYT?) well over six years ago.

        See, THAT’S what I find unbelievable — that you guys would expect that. And that you can’t see that a mistake is a mistake, pure and simple. And all you can do when you make a mistake is correct it promptly.

        But none of that, none of it, is as incredible to me as the idea that ANYONE would think a newspaper editor would intentionally get something like this wrong, and put himself and his paper through this. There’s no reason that would happen. Where’s the gain? I can’t imagine…

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Bottom line, guys, to use a technical newspaper term, the Times f___ed up. It happens, and when it happens, all you can do is correct it. And I’m glad it was them and not me, because I know EXACTLY how that feels.

          And it just astounds me that anyone looks at this, and sees something other than what is there…

    2. Tom Stickler

      Oh, please, Bart. That was no “surveyor’s symbol”, that was a rifle scope crosshair.

      1. Bryan Caskey

        So what? Politics adopts a significant amount of words from martial language. For instance, a political campaign is from the original use of the word campaign, which described an operation of an army in the field.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Yeah, and I hate that.

          But come on, Bryan. Surely you see the difference between general, stupid talk about vanquishing one’s political foes, and putting someone in the crosshairs of a rifle (next step — watch his head explode!).

          But this brings me to a pretty important point…

          I’m still not clear on what the facts are here. What happened, and what didn’t happen? When we started this discussion, based on your reaction, I assumed the story was entirely apocryphal.

          But now it seems that some of it was true, but that conclusions drawn about it were unfounded, or something… I don’t know; I’m confused.

          Could some explain to me, in a paragraph or so, what was right and what was wrong in what was asserted in the offending graf in that editorial?

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            Is it that Palin DID the thing in question, but that it had nothing to do with the guy that shot the people — or at least, that it couldn’t be demonstrated that it did? Is that it?

        2. bud

          Wow! Just Wow! In this super charged political environment to defend something as grotesque as an assault rifle crosshairs. That’s just disgusting. No wonder this country is so polarized when one side can’t see something so obviously wrong.

      2. Bart Rogers

        Are you a surveyor? I have used surveying equipment on many occasions and I can say with certainty, the symbol used is one I have used and looked at through several different surveying levels and transits. And I have used a rifle scope a few times in my life and yes, they are sometimes almost identical.

        So, who is to say for certain it was not a surveyor’s crosshair symbol? You? So, don’t “Oh please” me.

      3. Bart Rogers

        Tom, if you want further proof, enter the following on any search and check the third box in from left on the top line. “surveyor symbol used to mark locations on a map” The first symbol in the box with 16 symbols is the one on Palin’s website. It is not difficult to understand where you are coming from based on the photo next to your comment but at least give me the courtesy of having an open mind and understanding my view.

  5. Mark Stewart

    Had they been wiser, HMS Sophie would most definitely have laid in a large stock of bourbon before any foreign cruise.

    Sometimes, stopping and having a drink with those one finds of a (temporary) opposing view is the better part of valor. And discretion.

    We haven’t torn ourselves about like this for 45 years. That’s a long time. A golden age, really One worth considering, as we enter a dark period of uncertainty – again.

  6. Bryan Caskey

    “As for your complaint about the corrections process, another thing that could only come from a non-journalist (seriously, what is your practical suggestion for an alternative)…”

    Okay. How about putting the correction at the top of the page just under the headline, rather than buried all the way at the bottom? That’s a fairly easy way to not minimize your mistakes.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I think that’s a good idea — and I seem to remember having seen that done.

      Of course, there’s a complication here that I didn’t have to deal with for most of my career.

      Used to be, it was impossible to run a correction WITH the story, because you didn’t know it was wrong until the paper had been published and somebody TOLD you it was wrong. (Because, as I keep ‘splaining, while newspaper editors are pretty smart, they are not omniscient. They do have to be told things.)

      So it ran the next day, in a place where people knew to look for corrections (for some of out most severe critics, it was their favorite part of the paper). Usually page 2.

      But now, with the offending story or editorial being online, you can actually change it so that it no longer contains an error.

      Which raises the question: Why is it important to prominently tell someone that once upon a time there was an error in the piece, when its been corrected?

      I think it’s fine to put the correction at the top — sort of like striking one’s breast three times on saying mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa — but to what extent is it now necessary? What’s the practical purpose, in terms of effectively informing the reader, as opposed to the penitential one? And isn’t there the possibility that a reader might get confused, thinking that you’re warning him or her up top that they’re about to read something that is STILL erroneous?

      At this point, the fact that it was once wrong is a footnote, a curiosity, a “did you know” sort of thing. And where do you put footnotes? At the bottom.

      All that said, I’d be OK with putting it at the top. But I’m Catholic, so the whole penitential thing appeals to me…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        About that omniscience thing… One of the strangest things about being a newspaper editor — which means you are CONSTANTLY taking grief from people, wherever you go, 24/7 — is that factor.

        The really weird thing is that our severest critics, the people who just hated our guts and thought we were the worst people in the world, seemed to be the ones most fully convinced that we were omniscient. They absolutely refused to believe that we made a mistake because we didn’t know better, or that we failed to cover something because we didn’t know it was happening. To hear them talk, we were godlike — we knew all, saw all, heard all — and therefore we could only do the wrong thing, or fail to do the right thing, as a deliberate act of volition.

        I always thought that was really ironic.

        This manifested itself more in that “what we had failed to do” category. We’d have these furious people who demanded to know why we hadn’t covered their event, which was SO much more interesting than any event we HAD covered. And nine times out of 10, it was because they had failed to tell us about it.

        Of course, that was nothing compared to The Most Painful Thing An Editor Ever Has To Deal With — when you’ve been scooped by the competition, scooped on something important, something that’s very important to your community, something right on your home turf where NOBODY should ever beat you. And of course, all the critics, believing that you are omniscient, believe you were deliberately covering it up.

        I’ve got a good story to tell about that, one that I don’t think I’ve ever shared with y’all. It was a real nightmare, but we came back from it. Still, even though it had a happy ending, the pain of how it began is still something I can’t quite shake…

        Remind me to tell it sometime, when we’re not in the middle of arguing about something else…

      2. Brad Warthen Post author

        By the way, I hope all of y’all realize that if I were the editor in charge at the NYT, or if I even just worked there, I would have have said any of these things I’m telling you.

        You don’t want to make excuses in a situation like that. You don’t argue with the angry people with the torches and pitchforks. Not when you’ve screwed up. You just shut up and fix it.

        It’s only because I’m not involved that I’ve free to say, Hey, it’s nuts to think any editor would DELIBERATELY put himself or herself in this situation….

  7. Doug Ross

    I’m missing what the error was on the NY Times part. They printed an editorial on June 14 with text that suggested there was a link between Palin and the Giffords shooting. This despite that link being clearly rejected years ago, without question. So what was the error? Forgetting that they were wrong in the past? Someone wrote that piece the day of the shooting this week and attempted to link it to Palin. Did the entire editorial staff responsible for publishing the piece FORGET the facts? How could that be possible?

    It felt more like “we’re going to push this again because even though it was proved false the first time, we’re sticking with our theory (i.e. S.O.P. for editorial boards)”. Then when they were called on they write a weak correction… but the damage was already done – Palin is the source of the shooting this week.

  8. bud

    Does someone have links to the pertinent NYT articles? I’m a bit in the dark. The only thing that concerns me at this point is the original Palin ad. The crosshairs image is just flat inappropriate.

  9. bud

    The current NYT article as it appears now is fine. It corrected its earlier error. Doug and Bryan are waaaaaay over-reacting to this.

    1. Reply

      It’s what ideologues do: holler about the speck in someone else’s eye and ignore the log in their own.

      1. Bart Rogers

        Whoever you are, without calling names or creating tension, there are several on this blog on both sides with a log in their eye.

    2. Doug Ross

      So if Trump posted something today about Obama’s birth certificate and then corrected it later, no big deal?

      The question remains as to who decided to write what was known to be untrue in the first place.

  10. Brad Warthen Post author

    Why didn’t y’all tell me that Bryan’s initial tweet, with the link to the NYT piece, was missing from the post?!?!?

    It’s there now. This will cause our discussion to make SO much more sense…

Comments are closed.