New York Times public editor Byron Calame has quite the challenging job. The Times is one of the most scrutinized papers in the world and Calame has to separate legitimate and illegitimate gripes over its reportage, story selection and headlines. I encourage you to read his entire column from Sunday. He digs into a New York Times Sunday Magazine cover story from April about women who have been prosecuted for violating El Salvador's laws against abortion.
The story was written by Jack Hitt, a contributing writer to the Times, Harper's and Mother Jones, among other publications. He's written about abortion before for the Times.
Hitt interviewed two women who had been prosecuted under El Salvador's abortion laws. D.C., who constitutes the bulk of the story, ends up receiving no punishment. But Carmen Climaco, the second and final key anecdote of the story, was sentenced to 30 years in prison. Hitt says that she aborted a fetus at 18 weeks but that the abortion was recast as infanticide by strangling:
The truth was certainly -- well, not in the "middle" so much as somewhere else entirely. Somewhere like this: She'd had a clandestine abortion at 18 weeks, not all that different from D.C.'s, something defined as absolutely legal in the United States. It's just that she'd had an abortion in El Salvador.
That's how the story ends -- quite dramatically. The only problem is that Hitt's reporting was less than adequate. Here's how Calame summarizes the problems:
It turns out, however, that trial testimony convinced a court in 2002 that Ms. Climaco's pregnancy had resulted in a full-term live birth, and that she had strangled the "recently born." A three-judge panel found her guilty of "aggravated homicide," a fact the article noted. But without bothering to check the court document containing the panel's findings and ruling, the article's author, Jack Hitt, a freelancer, suggested that the "truth" was different.
Calame eloquently and diplomatically lays out many of the problems with the piece. He interviews Hitt and Times editors about the reporting and editing. He finds out that Hitt never checked the court documents on the case while preparing his story. This is particularly egregious since the Climaco anecdote was the only one supporting Hitt's claim that women go to prison for 30 years for nothing more than abortions in El Salvador.
Hitt says that no editor or fact-checker ever asked him if he had checked court records. Hitt tells Calame he thought getting the documents would be difficult. Without any difficulty at all, however, Calame got a stringer in El Salvador to walk into the court building without making any prior arrangements and walk out with an official copy of the court ruling.
It turned out the only 18-week estimate mentioned in the court ruling came from a doctor who hadn't seen any fetus and whose deductions, based on the size of the uterus 17 hours after the birth, were found by the three judges to be flawed, Calame notes. The panel that convicted Climaco used other medical evidence from a physician who conducted an autopsy to determine that the pregnancy had a 38- to 42-week duration. Another autopsy finding showed that the lungs of the victim floated when submerged in water, which indicated the baby had breathed at birth. That means that, unlike what Hitt dramatically said in his final lines, Climaco's baby didn't die under circumstances that would be legal in the United States.
Hitt also used an unpaid translator who consults for an abortion advocacy group in El Salvador for his interviews with D.C. and Climaco. That same group later used the Times story for fundraising purposes.
Anyone who has followed the sorry state of abortion coverage is disappointed but not likely to be surprised by all this. We've discussed the interesting politics of choosing anecdotes in the past. But what I do find surprising is how Calame's thorough reporting to unveil -- and diplomatic efforts to correct -- the errors in the story are completely rebuffed by Times management.
After committing an error, a quick correction is the easiest course of action. Reporters hate getting things wrong, but when you do you just have to admit it and improve your work in the future. Let's look at how the Times handled its error:
After being queried by the office of the publisher about a possible error, Craig Whitney, who is also the paper's standards editor, drafted a response that was approved by Gerald Marzorati, who is also the editor of the magazine. It was forwarded on Dec. 1 to the office of the publisher, which began sending it to complaining readers.
The response said that while the "fair and dispassionate" story noted Ms. Climaco's conviction of aggravated homicide, the article "concluded that it was more likely that she had had an illegal abortion." The response ended by stating, "We have no reason to doubt the accuracy of the facts as reported in our article, which was not part of any campaign to promote abortion."
But let's give the Times the benefit of the doubt. That was before the court documents had been translated into English. Surely after that happened, the paper set about issuing a correction, right?
After the English translation of the court ruling became available on Dec. 8, I asked Mr. Marzorati if he continued to have "no reason to doubt the accuracy of the facts" in the article. His e-mail response seemed to ignore the ready availability of the court document containing the findings from the trial before the three-judge panel and its sentencing decision. He referred to it as the "third ruling," since the trial is the third step in the judicial process.
The article was "as accurate as it could have been at the time it was written," Mr. Marzorati wrote to me. "I also think that if the author and we editors knew of the contents of that third ruling, we would have qualified what we said about Ms. Climaco. Which is NOT to say that I simply accept the third ruling as 'true'; El Salvador's judicial system is terribly politicized."
As accurate as it could have been at the time it was written? Let's see, the court ruling was in 2002. The story was written in 2006. How, then, is the article as accurate as it could have been at the time it was written? Am I missing some basic logic about the space-time continuum?
Further, the debate isn't over whether
The New York Times, er, El Salvador's judicial system is terribly politicized. The debate is over whether Hitt accurately portrayed the facts of the case. This is nothing short of a complete breakdown of the standards and editing process at the Times.
Abortion is such a contentious issue. It simply must be handled with extreme carefulness and a diligent checking of facts. Calame seems exasperated by the editors' steadfast refusal to correct the error. Unfortunately, I think this does quite a bit to further erode any reputation of fairness the Times clings to on this issue.
Another note -- a quick Google search on Hitt shows that Mother Jones isn't the only liberal publication for which he writes. Calculate, for a moment, the probability of the Times sending a Roman Catholic from National Review down to El Salvador to freelance on the issue. I'll save you the time. It's zero. Perhaps the Times just wants to make sure that the folks who cover the issue have similar personal views on abortion as Linda "I am the Alpha and Omega of All Things Factual" Greenhouse. But after all the criticism Times editors have faced over their abortion reporters this year, you wonder how that's working out for them. Unless abortion advocacy -- and not truthfulness -- is the goal of this newspaper.
Or maybe there's something I'm missing. Anyone out there want to attack Calame's perspective and defend Times management?