The L.A. Times: Correcting the Trivial, Leaving the Important Uncorrected
The editors of the L.A. Times are diligent about correcting factual errors in the paper — as long as those errors are trivial. If the errors are significant and relate to stories that are politically charged, though, the diligence and speed fall off rapidly.
To illustrate my point, let’s look at some recent corrections that have appeared in the paper. I think my favorite is this one:
Autobooks-Aerobooks: An article Saturday in the Business section about Autobooks-Aerobooks in Burbank gave the wrong first name for the store’s unofficial spokesman. He is Doug Stokes, not Dick Stokes.
That’s too bad. I really like the name Dick Stokes.
This one is revealing:
Michael Moore: An article about filmmaker Michael Moore in the June 29 Calendar section said he won an Academy Award for his documentary “Fahrenheit 9/11.” He won an Oscar for “Bowling for Columbine.”
File that one under “Wishful Thinking.”
Then there’s this Earth-shaking revelation:
Crossword puzzle: Last Sunday’s puzzle gave an incorrect clue for 54 Across: “A day that will live in —.” The reference was to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1941 speech about the attack on Pearl Harbor, but the correct quotation is “A date which will live in —,” with the answer being “infamy.”
Thank God we got that sorted out.
I gotta give you one more before I get to my real point:
DeSanto profile: A profile of film producer Tom DeSanto in Business on July 1 said he was single. He is unmarried but has been in a relationship for more than 2 1/2 years.
Yeah . . . with the woman who called in that correction.
OK, this is all lots of fun, but what am I getting at? Well, here’s one correction that has not appeared:
An article in Section A on July 4 said that the Supreme Court upheld a 33-month prison sentence for a decorated Army veteran with no criminal record. The veteran had a previous conviction for making false statements in connection with the purchase of firearms.
I wrote that. But no such correction has appeared in the L.A. Times, even though they have now had 10 days to correct the record.
I posted about this on July 4, the day the article came out. (You should read that post if you’re unfamiliar with the specifics of the error in question; I assume most regular readers know exactly what I’m talking about.) I have written the Readers’ Representative about this error twice. My first e-mail was sent on July 4, the day the article came out; the second was sent on July 9. In the first e-mail — which I blind-copied to Stu707, who gets the credit for noticing the error — I said: “I think the correction on this should be swift.”
It’s been 10 days, and there has been no correction. I think it’s safe to say any eventual correction will not be “swift.” Indeed, Stu707 commented on July 4: “I’m sure none of us will hold our breath waiting for the correction.” I’m glad you didn’t. If you all had held your breaths waiting for a correction, I wouldn’t have any readers left.
Unlike the trivial corrections I listed above, this one is significant. It related to an issue of importance: the appropriate length of Scooter Libby’s sentence. The point of the article was to compare Victor Rita to Scooter Libby, to show that it was wrong for Rita to receive a 33-month sentence while Libby got no time at all. The article purported to claim that most criminals in “similar” situations received prison time, but provided zero evidence that any of the criminals who got prison time had a spotless record, like Libby had. The only purported example was Rita — but, contrary to the L.A. Times claim, he had a previous conviction for a similar offense.
Now, some may argue that the error is indeed trivial, because under the Sentencing Guidelines, Rita’s previous conviction did not count for purposes of calculating his criminal history points. In fact, if we ever do see a correction on this, I have absolutely no doubt — none whatsoever — that the paper will include a sentence trying to minimize the importance of the error by noting this fact. I expect something like this:
An article in Section A on July 4 said that the Supreme Court upheld a 33-month prison sentence for a decorated Army veteran with no criminal record. In fact, the veteran had a conviction for making false statements in connection with the purchase of firearms. The article should have said that he had no criminal record for purposes of the Sentencing Guidelines.
The fact that the conviction didn’t count under the Sentencing Guidelines does not render the error trivial, for two reasons.
First, the sentencing judge could have taken the prior conviction into account regardless of the Sentencing Guidelines. The United States Supreme Court ruled in a splintered decision in United States v. Booker that the Sentencing Guidelines are “advisory.” This means that, even if Rita’s previous conviction doesn’t count for purposes of the Sentencing Guidelines, Rita’s sentencing judge could still have taken it into account in imposing Rita’s sentence.
Second, the article was not addressing a mere legal issue, but also a political one: was it fair for Libby to get no time while Victor Rita and others convicted of obstruction got prison time? The records of the sentenced defendants would be a critical factor in the common-sense way that citizens would view this issue, regardless of the law.
Thus, whether viewed as a legal or a political matter, it was flat-out wrong for the L.A. Times to say that Victor Rita had “no criminal record” — and this error served to falsely bolster the credibility of the paper’s assertion that Libby’s sentence was unusual.
Regular readers know that I was upset by the President’s decision to commute Libby’s sentence such that he got no custody time. (I would have been fine with a 15-month sentence, or maybe even something shorter than that — but it struck me as trivializing Libby’s offenses to remove all custody time from his sentence.) But here’s the thing that apparently separates me from the editors of the L.A. Times: I believe in setting forth the true facts, regardless of my personal opinions or agenda. And I will be just as dogged in pursuing this correction, which argues against my political position, as I would be in pursuing one that supported my position.
Ten days is an absurd amount of time to take to make this correction. The facts are right there in the Supreme Court opinion about Rita’s sentence. Stu707 can verify that I sent a link to that opinion in my e-mail to the Readers’ Representative on July 4. My e-mail also quoted the Supreme Court opinion.
In short, I spoon-fed the paper the facts necessary to make this correction.
So what is taking them so damned long?
Perhaps they’re waiting for you to buy a front page ad?Another Drew (8018ee) — 7/14/2007 @ 4:01 pm
Heh. That’s a great idea!
I love it. I’m going to see what it would cost.Patterico (2a65a5) — 7/14/2007 @ 4:09 pm
But can you do it classy like?
I for one look forward to clipping my “2 for 1” admission coupon to the Bare Elegance from the front page with that day’s corrections printed on the back.cts22 (88386e) — 7/14/2007 @ 5:48 pm
Response from LA Times Reader’s Rep….
“I can’t hear you…lalalalalalalala…”Bill M (0379bc) — 7/15/2007 @ 9:55 am
You know, otherwise, people might have thought that all Sundays are infamous (instead of just all December 7ths).Beldar (46393d) — 7/15/2007 @ 6:03 pm
In this post, you have insulted the Baltimore Sun. I must protest on their behalf! Are you implying that L.A. is somehow a bigger or more important city?
My hometown paper faithfully reprinted the original LAT story, error included. I notified their Public Editor, even linking to your original post (see comment #6 therein). And the Sun has been just as diligent as the Times in correcting this mistake!
Although, granted, the LAT may have edged ahead in originating misleading stories.AMac (c822c9) — 7/16/2007 @ 6:43 am