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New York Times, PETA, and Yale.

May 12, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 34
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Correctamundo

The Howell Raines-era New York Times accelerated its reputational tailspin last Thursday when 27-year-old national desk correspondent Jayson Blair abruptly resigned from the paper amidst a mini-uproar over apparently faked reporting and plagiarism. Immediately at issue was Blair's April 26 front page story on the family of Army mechanic Edward Anguiano, killed in action during the liberation of Iraq: Specialist Anguiano's mother said Blair had never visited her home or talked to her on the phone, though his Times story described the place and quoted her in detail. How could this be? As the editor of the San Antonio Express-News complained, much of Blair's material had been lifted from a recently published piece by Express-News reporter Macarena Hernandez.

But wait, there may be more. Ominously enough, the Times itself, reporting on the matter in last Friday's edition, quotes a promise from executive editor Raines that he is "also reviewing other journalistic work [Jayson Blair] has done for the Times," and "we will do what is necessary to be sure the record is kept straight." According to Washington Post media correspondent Howie Kurtz, there'll be a lot of work involved in such a review: Blair has been involved in a number of previous controversies "and the paper has run 50 corrections on his stories."

Which is an interesting little statistic. We suspect our first reaction was the same as any disinterested scholar of American journalistic institutions: "Whoa! How many stories do you get to screw up at the Times and still keep your job?" Our second reaction was, let's fire up the Nexis database and find out.

Since Blair's name first appeared in the Times on June 9, 1998, he has had 725 total bylines there. His 50 corrections therefore constitute a 6.9 percent discovered-error rate. That's not so great. But it's not nearly so bad as the factual strikeout average posted, to take one random example, by Times Washington-bureau stalwart Adam Clymer over the exact same period: 400 bylines with 36 corrections (9.0 percent). Or how's about Times associate editor R.W. "Johnny" Apple Jr., whose 327 bylines with 46 corrections (14.1 percent spoiled copy) would seem to label him--the numbers don't lie--less than half as reliable a newsman as the hapless youngster Howell Raines is now banishing to Purdah.

At the risk of revealing embarrassing details of THE SCRAPBOOK's obsessions, we'll admit that we ran columnist Maureen Dowd's numbers so you can save yourself the trouble: a spectacular record of one correction in the last nine years (which this page certainly can't match). We'll leave to the cynics jokes about how you first have to deal in facts to make errors of the sort that need correcting.

How Much Loot?

About the looting of Iraq's National Museum: The New York Times last week reported that estimates of the catastrophe have been ratcheted down considerably. To review the bidding: John F. Burns, in a rather breathless lead paragraph, reported on April 12 that when "American troops entered Baghdad in sufficient force to topple Saddam Hussein's government this week, it took only 48 hours for the museum to be destroyed, with at least 170,000 artifacts carried away by looters."

That's more than 3,500 artifacts an hour--an astonishing rate of theft that probably should have been flagged by a copy editor. But the 170,000 figure (which seems to have been a guess at the total holdings) has since been repeated in hundreds of stories, most of them hysterically anti-U.S. military. Burns's piece, to be fair, went on to caution that "what officials told journalists today may have to be adjusted as a fuller picture comes to light."

And how! Alan Riding's front page piece in the Times last Thursday reports that museum officials have now provided American investigators with a list of "artifacts that were definitely missing." The list contains (this is not a misprint) 29 items. Four have subsequently been found. "Twenty-five pieces is not the same as 170,000," the investigating Marine colonel, Matthew F. Bogdanos, dryly notes. Bogdanos's day job, when he's not doing reserve duty, is as a prosecutor in the Manhattan D.A.'s office.

Much uncertainty remains, but the difference between 170,000 and 25, as Mark Twain might have put it, is like the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.

Grad Students of the World, Disband!