The New York Times just gave a convincing demonstration of how useless corrections really are

Often, by the time a newspaper publishes a critical correction, it’s far too little and far too late to make much of an impact on the narrative of the original story. For example, when tensions flared across Israel and the West Bank late last year, the New York Times published the following allegation:

Further charging the atmosphere at a time of heightened Israeli-Palestinian tensions and religious friction, a mosque in a village in the West Bank was damaged overnight in what was said to be an arson attack.

A month later, after an investigation concluded that the cause of fire was electrical, the Times published a one-paragraph retraction as a “News Brief”, and a slightly-longer version of the same online. Other newspapers followed similar patterns — Fire Blamed on Electrical Failure is admittedly not the same story as Israelis Inflame Tensions by Torching West Bank Mosque. Still, the damage was done: the incident remains listed on Wikipedia’s “List of Israeli price tag attacks“. If you heard about the incident at all, it was almost certainly back when the building originally burned down.

But at least, in that instance, the New York Times bothered to pay attention to its own retraction. Fast forward to the current flare-up over Bibi’s looming speech before Congress. It has been widely reported that the Israelis went behind Obama’s back and accepted Boehner’s invitation to speak without informing his Administration. But check out this correction that ran last week in the Times:

NYTimes Correction 1-30

That’s a regrettable error to have made, and certainly something worth keeping in mind for future articles. Like, for instance, Roger Cohen’s Op-Ed in today’s Opinion Pages, “Israel Needs a Grown-Up“. In that piece, Cohen describes Boehner’s invitation as having been “accepted without the minimum courtesy of informing the White House.” Funny, cause I could have sworn that your newspaper said exactly the opposite just last week.

Now, I don’t know precisely what happened with this invitation. I wasn’t there, and it’s hard not to watch Obama drop everything to attend the funeral of a despot who may or may not have helped make 9/11 possible without concluding that this crisis has been blown a little out of proportion. But no matter what really went down, one thing is clear: the New York Times felt strongly enough about one version of the facts that it issued a correction, and then acted like that correction never happened just one week later.

Now, it’s possible the New York Times Opinion writers (and editors) don’t actually read the news, or it’s possible they’re given free reign to make up facts that fit a desired narrative, but I have a feeling this really just provides further evidence that corrections are pretty much useless because nobody pays any attention to them — including the very newspapers that publish them.

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