My Latest E-Mail to the L.A. Times’s “Readers’ Representative,” — or, “You Keep Using That Word. I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means.”
I just sent this to the Readers’ Representative of the L.A. Times:
I’m disappointed with your response in general, on several levels. But I’m especially surprised by your response regarding Tim Rutten’s claim that The New Republic admitted concocting the story about the disfigured woman. This is because corrections are your business, and I would think you would be especially sensitive to a false charge that a media outlet had admitted making up a story.
You may not have read the correction that the editors of The New Republic published. You can read it here. Let me quote for you the relevant paragraphs regarding the disfigured woman:
Beauchamp’s essay consisted of three discrete anecdotes. In the first, Beauchamp recounted how he and a fellow soldier mocked a disfigured woman seated near them in a dining hall. Three soldiers with whom TNR has spoken have said they repeatedly saw the same facially disfigured woman. One was the soldier specifically mentioned in the Diarist. He told us: “We were really poking fun at her; it was just me and Scott, the day that I made that comment. We were pretty loud. She was sitting at the table behind me. We were at the end of the table. I believe that there were a few people a few feet to the right.”
The recollections of these three soldiers differ from Beauchamp’s on one significant detail (the only fact in the piece that we have determined to be inaccurate): They say the conversation occurred at Camp Buehring, in Kuwait, prior to the unit’s arrival in Iraq. When presented with this important discrepancy, Beauchamp acknowledged his error. We sincerely regret this mistake.
I emphasize certain language that makes clear that the editors are making an admission of an error, and not an admission that the story was made up. (In reality, the story may well have been made up, but that’s a different issue from what the editors have admitted.) The editors are attempting to make the case that the story was not made up, but rather is accurate in its essence — supported (they say) by three soldiers. It suffers, they claim, only from an error regarding the location of the incident.
Your columnist Tim Rutten characterized that correction as follows:
The magazine determined that the incident involving the disfigured woman was concocted and corrected that, but also reported that interviews with Beauchamp’s comrades substantiated his version of the other events.
I would like you to put yourself in the shoes of the editors of The New Republic for a moment. Imagine for a second that you wrote the above correction regarding an article in the Los Angeles Times. It shouldn’t be hard to do; you write similar corrections on a regular basis.
In your correction, you take care to note the corroborating evidence supporting the story as reported by your newspaper. The point of your correction is to communicate that the paper stands behind the story, with the caveat that an error was made regarding one fact, and only one fact: the location of the incidents in question.
Now imagine that a blogger named Patterico came along and characterized your correction as follows:
The L.A. Times determined that the incident involving the disfigured woman was concocted and corrected that, but also reported that interviews with Beauchamp’s comrades substantiated his version of the other events.
I think you would be quite angry to see your correction so badly mischaracterized — and rightfully so. You and I both speak the English language, and we both know that the word “concocted” has a specific meaning in this context. Specfically, it means “invented” or “made up.” It is not a word used to describe stories that are accurate, but that suffer from an error. As someone who deals with corrections on a daily basis, I know that you are fully familiar with the difference between errors, and stories that are “concocted.”
It occurs to me that you might not have personally seen the language of the correction that Rutten so badly mischaracterized. That is why I took care to quote the entire relevant passage in this e-mail.
Now that you have seen it, I ask you: do you stand behind this language that you e-mailed me earlier today?
The columnist’s point is that, as a scene in Iraq, it was “concocted” in that it never happened there. The magazine corrected it, which means editors admit it never happened there.
Surely not. Surely you can’t seriously argue that Rutten fairly characterized the nature of the editors’ correction. Surely you can’t support the use of the word “concocted” to refer to what the magazine’s editors claimed was a simple error.
Let me put the question to you another way. What if Scott Thomas Beauchamp were the one writing you demanding a correction? And what if he pointed out that The New Republic had never accused him of having “concocted” the story? Would you be as resistant to a correction then?
In other words, does the running of a correction depend upon the identity of the person who brings the error to your attention?
Now, as it happens, the “error” we are discussing — locating the incident in Iraq instead of Kuwait — suggests that in reality the story may indeed have been concocted. (Also, it undercuts the whole reason that the story was included in the piece: namely, to suggest that Beauchamp mocked the disfigured woman due to the horrors of war.) But the editors have not admitted that — and that is what Rutten claimed had happened; that the editors had “determined” that the story was “concocted.”
It’s just not so.
Rutten’s insistence to the contrary is just one of the many sloppy errors he made in his column. These errors, taken together, show that he had no business writing this column.
P.S. If this is the new L.A. Times definition of “concocted,” then brother, this paper has concocted a lot more stories than even I had accused them of concocting.
UPDATE: For example, this one.