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CARR WRECK: Does the press self-correct?

Posted by Hyuuga Cutezz On 6:21 AM
TUESDAY, APRIL 24, 2012

Part 2—The claim is absurd on its face: Do news orgs correct their own mistakes?

In a wonderful bit of insider clownistry, that’s what David Carr told readers of the New York Times. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/23/12.

We know—the claim is absurd on its face. But plainly, that’s what Carr said. The gentleman made his ridiculous claim in his “Media Equation” column:
CARR (4/23/12): What is it with television news and corrections? When the rest of the journalism world gets something wrong, they generally correct themselves. But network news acts as if an on-air admission of error might cause a meteor to land on the noggin of one of its precious talking heads. NBC used all of the powers at its disposal to amend the mistake, except the high-visibility airtime where the bad clip ran in the first place.
According to Carr, TV news programs don’t self-correct. But generally speaking, everybody else does.

This claim is turtles all the way down, as Bertrand Russell once said. Consider a recent pair of mistakes in Carr’s own New York Times. These mistakes concern the killing of Trayvon Martin, the very topic Carr pretended to discuss in yesterday’s column.

One of these mistakes occurred in an editorial on Thursday, April 12. As always, the editors posed themselves under a high-minded headline: “Searching for Justice in Florida.”

But uh-oh! As they proceeded, the editors repeated a widely-made factual error concerning this case. This misstatement has been widely used to drive a certain view of the killing:
NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL (4/12/12): Angela Corey, the special prosecutor, declined to discuss details of the case but said that if the Stand Your Ground law is invoked by the defense, ''we will fight it'' with evidence that the shooting was unjustified. In this case, Mr. Zimmerman exited his car to follow the teenager despite a 911 dispatcher's warning: ''We don't need you to do that.''
The highlighted statement is almost certainly false, as the editors should have known or suspected long before April 12. It had long been fairly clear that Zimmerman had already left his car when the dispatcher made the quoted remark. It now seems clear that Corey herself claims that Zimmerman was already out of his car when the dispatcher made this remark.

(This sequence is rather clearly implied in Corey’s affidavit and in the testimony of her lead investigator at last Friday’s bail hearing. To review the relevant testimony, click here, scroll halfway down.)

Almost surely, Zimmerman was already out of his car, following Martin on foot, when the dispatcher made his remark. But on those TV news programs which don’t self-correct, very loud people have endlessly claimed that Zimmerman ignored the dispatcher’s order, instruction or request that he should stay in his car.

This claim has been used to fuel the charge that Zimmerman behaved irresponsibly—against police instructions—in following Martin that night.

By April 12, the editors should have known that this claim was almost certainly false. But so what? The editors followed the lead of the cable screamers and made their inaccurate statement.

Twelve days have passed, and no correction has appeared. Nor will any correction appear; Homey don’t play it that way, and he never has. But writing live and direct from Dreamland, David Carr informed the world that denizens of the “journalism world” do in fact generally self-correct.

That’s pure nonsense. It’s the latest ad for the guild from one of the guild’s own members.

A second misstatement appeared two day later, in Charles Blow’s weekly column. Blow’s statement was less specific than that of the editors—but his claim was also bogus.

Like the editors, Blow posed himself beneath a high-minded headline:
BLOW (4/14/12): Justice for Trayvon

America has heard the calls for justice from a Florida family.

A boy’s blood had been spilled on a rain-soaked patch of grass behind a row of mustard-colored condominiums by a man who had pursued him against the advice of 911 dispatchers. That man carried a 9-millimeter handgun. The boy carried a bag of candy.
Did Zimmerman “pursue [Martin] against the advice of 911 dispatchers?” Like Blow, we don’t know. That is the claim of the prosecution, as is clear from the affidavit charging Zimmerman with second-degree murder and from testimony in last Friday’s bail hearing. But this claim has not been proven. People speaking for Zimmerman have repeatedly said that he began returning to his truck after the dispatcher’s remark.

Blow doesn’t know if his statement is true. In the world Carr has imagined, a correction or a clarification should have appeared by now. But no such statement has appeared—and no such statement will.

The editors made a statement which is almost certainly false; Blow made a statement which is unfounded. But no corrections will appear; Homey don’t play it like that. In fact, the New York Times has created some of the most comical examples of non-correction in the annals of modern press history, a disastrous fact we will review before the week is done.

TV news programs don’t self-correct. But as a general matter, neither does the Times.

Is it possible that Carr doesn’t understand this unfortunate fact—a fact which is blindingly obvious? We can’t get inside people’s heads. But Carr’s highlighted statement—We journalists typically do self-correct—represents the latest staging of a common morality play, in which the guild misleads the public about the guild’s own conduct.

Carr made a ridiculous statement in yesterday’s piece. But he also acted out a familiar drama in this highly familiar column. In his piece, he pretended to dog NBC News about one of the roughly three million mistakes it and its cable affiliates have made in their coverage of the killing of Martin.

Through such presentations, tribunes like Carr give us rubes the impression that the guild is on the job. The Times is watch-dogging NBC News, this newspaper’s readers may think.

When we buy this false impression, we rubes get deceived—again.

Tomorrow: Carr and MSNBC—and also, Brian Stelter

Sometimes, news orgs do self-correct: If their mistakes are sufficiently trivial, big news orgs do self-correct. With regard to the killing of Martin, the New York Times offered this self-correction on April 2:
CORRECTIONS (4/2/12): An article on Thursday about how Skittles, the candy Trayvon Martin was carrying when he was killed, has become a symbol of protest rendered incorrectly the name of a powdered drink that also became a symbol of protest after the cult leader Jim Jones laced it with cyanide to kill more than 900 people in Guyana in 1978. It is Flavor Aid, not Flavor-Aid.
Thank goodness they straightened that out!

As a general rule, big news orgs will correct their own mistakes as long as the mistakes are trivial. When it comes to the killing of Martin, the Times has corrected the spelling of Flavor Aid. But it has failed to inform its readers about those highly-charged claims concerning Zimmerman’s conduct.

Four days later, the clownish newspaper authored another correction:
CORRECTIONS (4/6/12): An article on March 17 about appeals for a Department of Justice investigation into the shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman misstated the time period in which Mr. Zimmerman made 46 calls to 911. The calls were made over the course of about eight years, not over 14 months. The error was repeated in a front-page article on March 21 about Florida's self-defense law known as Stand Your Ground.
It only took the Times three weeks to notice this error. Here at THE HOWLER, we detailed the press corps’ ridiculous bungling of the 46 phone calls on March 27. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/27/12.

According to Nexis, the Times has made one other correction concerning the killing of Martin. Blow’s columns have been full of misleading, bogus or unproven statements. But the Times wanted you to know this:
CORRECTIONS (3/28/12): An article on Monday about news coverage of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed 17-year-old who was fatally shot on Feb. 26 in Sanford, Fla., misstated the age of George Zimmerman, the man identified as the shooter. He is 28, not 26.
Our big news orgs do self-correct—when their mistakes don’t matter. In the case of the Times, no one reads these self-corrections, which don't appear in the parts of the paper where the original errors occurred.

This is the very type of conduct against which Carr dramatically railed. NBC News did correct the editing error he cited, one of the roughly three million errors the news org has made in its coverage of the killing of Martin. But they didn't correct it on the Today show itself, our Potemkin watch-dog railed.

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