“All authority implies an extreme reluctance to admit past error,” wrote British novelist Patrick O’Brian in The Letter of Marque. O’Brian was writing about the Royal Navy, but the truth of his observation is evident almost everywhere one looks: in government, in nonprofit organizations, in schools, and in business. Very rarely do we hear a person in authority say the words “I was wrong.”
It’s true in the newspaper business, too. Newspapers make mistakes all the time, but most of them are never acknowledged or corrected. A few weeks ago, I wrote about the election of George Santos to Congress and how his fabrications and dishonest business dealings were not reported in the main New York newspapers until it was too late, even though they had been revealed well before Election Day by the weekly North Shore Leader. After the New York Times belatedly caught on to Santos, the newspaper repeatedly referred to itself as having broken the story — and still to this day, as far as I know, has never owned up to its failure in this case.
The Times is unquestionably a great newspaper. It’s the closest thing we have to a reliably accurate and authoritative source. But it still makes plenty of mistakes, both in the facts themselves and in the way news stories are framed.
In a recent post on his blog Breaking the News, James Fallows describes how the Times has mischaracterized the current debt-ceiling crisis (which Stephen Greenberg writes about on our own op-ed page this week). A Jan. 20 front-page headline in the Times said, “With Partisan Fight Likely, Treasury Uses ‘Extraordinary’ Steps to Pay Bills.” This framing, Fallows writes, “illustrates the drawbacks of reflexively casting issues as political struggles by describing a potential debt-ceiling crisis as a ‘partisan fight.’
“The debt ceiling is a problem,” Fallows continues, “because failing to take the routine step of raising it has the potential to disrupt economies all around the world. It is not an issue, because there are zero legitimate arguments for what the G.O.P. fringe is threatening now. It’s like threatening to blow up refineries if you don’t like an administration’s energy policy, or threatening to put anthrax into the water supply if you don’t like their approach to public health. These moves would give you ‘leverage,’… But they’re thuggery rather than policy.”
Fallows gives other examples, too, in arguing that the press in general is terrible at examining its own errors. He says it was a big mistake for the Times to abolish the position of public editor nearly six years ago.
The Independent makes its share of mistakes, too. “You still print corrections?” one reader asked recently. “Hardly anybody does anymore.” We do. Nearly every issue includes at least one correction. But there are times a story has a deeper problem: a slanted perspective or an important omission. Every newspaper could use a public editor — the aggrieved reader’s representative. Us included. Please write to me if you would like to be considered for the position.