Thursday, March 03, 2011

straight facts

It's not always easy for journalists to get their facts straight. Even back when papers could afford the salaries of editors and re-write men, they still would sometimes get names wrong, dates wrong, affiliations wrong. Now that money has fled it's much harder for them to get things right. Still, when the New York Times features a front page piece by a reporter named Sulzberger, you expect some extra attention to detail. You expect it the more when highly-contentious politics are involved. Just as much, you expect that when a key "fact" given in the top two paragraphs is shown to be false, the Great Gray Lady will give prominence to the correction so that it will be picked up by the thousands of outlets that have already shown their readers the erroneous information.

Not so.

Here's how the article originally began. I've highlighted the phrase that the Times later corrected.
JANESVILLE, Wis. -- Rich Hahan worked at the General Motors plant here until it closed about two years ago. He moved to Detroit to take another G.M. job while his wife and children stayed here, but then the automaker cut more jobs. So Mr. Hahan, 50, found himself back in Janesville, collecting unemployment for a time, and watching as the city's industrial base seemed to crumble away. Among the top five employers here are the county, the schools and the city. And that was enough to make Mr. Hahan, a union man from a union town, a supporter of Gov. Scott Walker's sweeping proposal to cut the benefits and collective-bargaining rights of public workers in Wisconsin, a plan that has set off a firestorm of debate and protests at the state Capitol. He says he still believes in unions, but thinks those in the public sector lead to wasteful spending because of what he sees as lavish benefits and endless negotiations. "Something needs to be done," he said, "and quickly."
Here's the Times' whoopsie note, published four days later at the bottom of page 2:
Correction: February 26, 2011

A front-page article on Tuesday about reaction among private-sector workers in Wisconsin to Gov. Scott Walker’s effort to cut benefits and collective-bargaining rights for unionized public employees referred incorrectly to the work history of one person quoted, and also misspelled his surname. While the man, Rich Hahn (not Hahan) described himself to a reporter as a "union guy," he now says that he has worked at unionized factories, but was not himself a union member. (The Times contacted Mr. Hahn again to review his background after a United Auto Workers official said the union had no record of his membership.)
As you might expect, the original article achieved much greater reach than the corrected version that's now online. A Google search for the original, uncorrected, text gives close to 3,000 hits while a search for the corrected text gives 119 at the moment.

All this is the more interesting because Wisconsin's Gov. Walker referred to the erroneous text in his notorious phone conversation with the faux David Koch. In it Walker says he wants wide distribution of the Sulzberger piece, particularly among people who have doubts about his union bashing campaign.

A reporter on the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Daniel Bice did a nice, succinct blog post on this subject yesterday. It has also drawn a highly-readable tirade from Keith Olbermann.

I haven't found any news hounds who've uncovered how it was that Sulzberger came to be speaking with Rich Hahn in Janesville. It's pretty certain that he and Monica Davey did not just show up and begin interviewing people at random. They might have had a local handler with them and that handler might have had a connection with Wisconsin Republicans, but it's just as likely they used other local sources. The local chamber of commerce is one possibility. It's a fact that the Times article has been rebroadcast via a collection of web sites that all have the domain name "" and all these sites are affiliated with local chambers of commerce across the U.S. (for example the Ashland OH, C-of-C).

From the article itself it seems pretty clear that neither Sulzberger nor Davey asked for a backgrounding from the Times' premier labor reporter, Steven Greenhouse. As Jason Linkins points out, "just a year ago, Greenhouse wrote a long and excellent investigation of Janesville's GM plant for Granta (Janesville, Wisconsin). In it, Greenhouse looked at the plant closure, the unions, and all the factors at play."

Having been given some front-page real estate for his story, you'd think Sulzberger would be happy to publicize it but you'd be wrong. As Jonathan Schwarz points out, Sulzberger wrote a 733-word article about the Walker prank call and in it, he says A.G.S. unaccountably fails to mention something: "Number of mentions of Walker loving a certain Sulzberger-written New York Times article?" he asks. And "Zero," he answers.

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