On June 23, something very rare appeared in the pages of the New York Times: an admission by a Times columnist that he had made a reporting mistake. The columnist was David Carr, who acknowledged that he had erred in an earlier piece which implied that the Washington Post had not paid sufficient attention to Eric Cantor’s upset in the Virginia primary.
Whether Carr discovered his mistake by himself or, more likely, someone at the Post called it to his attention, I do not know. What I do know is that the Times would never have published a Letter to the Editor pointing out Carr’s error. That’s because, as a matter of policy, the Times will not publish letters that challenge the facts in any piece written by its own columnists or reporters. I learned this the simple way: by writing such a letter myself.
On April 24, I wrote a 190-word letter to the Times contesting a very angry column entitled “A Saint He Ain’t” written by Maureen Dowd on the dual canonizations of Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II. Dowd’s main beef was that Pope John Paul II did not deserve canonization because, she argued, the clerical sex abuse scandal and its cover-up occurred during his reign, for which she held him accountable. She also criticized the now-retired Pope Benedict XVI, whom she dissed as John Paul’s “Rasputin,” for rushing to canonize his “mentor.” In other words, Dowd was saying that here was a case of one conservative pope canonizing—and therefore justifying the papacy of—another.
In my letter to the Times, I did not question Dowd’s opinion of Benedict or John Paul II, or challenge her clichéd political categories for distinguishing one pope from another. What I did do was contest her basic assumption that the canonization of a pope means approval of everything he had done as a pope. On that point, I wrote, “Nothing could be further from the truth,” and then went on to give examples from history that disprove her point.
Since the Times loves to publish letters from people with a claim to expertise, I identified myself as the author of the book Making Saints: How the Catholic Church Determines Who Is a Saint, Who Isn’t and Why. And because the Times trusts the judgment of its own reviewers, I noted that my book had been reviewed (at length on publication in 1990—and very enthusiastically, though I did not mention this) in the Sunday Times Book Review.
Two hours later I received an email from Mary Drohan of the Letters Department telling me that they wanted to publish the letter if I approved of their editing. Gone from the original letter was my dig at Dowd for once again reminding readers of her Catholic childhood, as if this credentialed her as a judge of which popes are worthy of canonization. Okay, I already knew that the Times does not publish letters that reply in kind to their sharper-elbowed columnists. But I did object to the editors’ replacing my “Nothing could be further from the truth” with “I disagree.”
From a series of email exchanges with Ms. Drohan, during which we dithered over alternative phrasing, two things became clear. First, her editors wanted to publish the letter because it added information about how rare it is to see a pope proclaimed a saint, and I was obviously well informed on the subject. But, second, the paper would not publish this or any letter which claimed that a Times writer on this or any subject was in fact wrong. Even my offer to change my objection from “Nothing could be further from the truth” to “This is a common misunderstanding” was refused.
Ms. Drohan was very gracious and straightforward in explaining why: “Here’s the problem,” she wrote. “Saying ‘this is a common misunderstanding’ sounds like a correction of a factual error (which in this case it is). We don’t use letters to make factual corrections. That’s for the corrections people. There is no such problem with ‘I disagree.’ ”
For the same reason, she went on, another line I offered was unacceptable: “Likewise, ‘Ms. Dowd claims that Pope Benedict chose to make his predecessor a saint, but popes do not choose saints: they merely approve candidates found worthy after due canonical process.’ So unless we find a way around this, I don’t think that we’ll be able to use this letter.”
We couldn’t and they didn’t, which was fine with me.
In sum, the Times was telling me that they will accept letters that offer a different opinion, but those that challenge assertions of fact are relegated to the editors of the Corrections column, where minutiae like misspelled names and erroneous dates are corrected for the record. There is no way to counter a story or column like Ms. Dowd’s that totally misconstrues its subject matter.
This was alien to my experience at Newsweek, where I wrote some 750 stories, including nearly 100 cover stories, over my 38 years at the magazine. Like the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and every other publication I have written for except the New York Times, Newsweek acknowledged errors in its Letters column and, in the days when the magazine was flush with staff, very often wrote letters back to those who contested something we had published to explain why we stood by our story.
So a few weeks later I wrote to the “public editor” at the Times describing my exchange with the Letters Department and suggested that it would be of benefit to readers to investigate the paper’s rule about challenging opinions but not facts—a distinction that nowhere appears in the paper’s guidelines for submitting letters for publication.
I received a polite reply of a general nature, but no explanation, much less an investigation by the public editor.
Finally, I decided to do a bit of fact-checking of my own—something I invite interested readers of the Times to do for themselves. In May and June I set aside two weeks each month to read every letter to the editor published in the paper. Here’s what I found.
First, Ms. Drohan was right. There were a number of letters that challenged opinions, most of them taking issue with a Times editorial. A handful of letter-writers, obviously cleverer than I, came close to questioning truth-claims in presenting their opinions. But none made the case that a reporter or columnist got the facts or the story wrong.
Second, a letter-writer can challenge the truth of a piece written by someone not on the newspaper’s staff. But except in the Sunday magazine, virtually all pieces written by outsiders are opinion pieces.
Third, in the wide-open digital world, online responses sometimes challenge facts, and writers are free to wax indignant. For example, Ms. Dowd’s column on the papal canonizations drew 645 responses, some of them as angry with Ms. Dowd as she was with John Paul II. But the digital Times, it appears, is not bound by the same strictures as the print edition. It’s the paper’s bargain basement, where the groundlings are free to vent and bleat. Upstairs, the print edition is for those who have contributions to make to the Times as the paper of record, and that record does not admit challenges to assertions of fact or assumptions that reflect ignorance of the subject.
Fourth, the Letters Department seems to prefer letters of two kinds: those from experts—mainly academics, researchers, and the like—who use their letters to affirm or expand on what the Times’s reporters or columnists have written, usually by referencing their own work; and letters from executives or public relations officers of corporate, nonprofit, or advocacy groups who use the letters column to associate their organizations with what the Times has printed.
In this latter category there were a number of repeat performers. For example, the Times probably publishes more stories and editorials on abortion than any other newspaper in the country. These stories routinely attract at least one immediate—almost automatic—response from Planned Parenthood or one of the many other reproductive-rights advocacy organizations. But on this and similarly controversial issues, I did not see a single letter opposing the position of the Times. Interested readers can test this assertion for themselves by using Google.
Whatever the reason for the Times’s unusual policy of not publishing letters in opposition, the lack of challenge and disagreement on the Times’s Letters page has serious negative consequences. First, it makes reading the Letters column a dull, dull, dull experience. Second, it allows those who read nothing but the Times to think that they inhabit a world of enlightened consensus. Worse, it permits Ms. Dowd and her colleagues an illusion of authorial infallibility that even a pope might envy.
Writing for the Times, in sum, means never having to say you’re sorry—unless, like David Carr, you choose to.
Kenneth L. Woodward is writing a book on religion, culture, and politics since 1950.