Airbrushing History at The New York Times
By KYLE SMITH
New York Post
Updated: Sat., Jun. 4, 2011, 3:15 AM
Last Updated: 3:15 AM, June 4, 2011
Posted: 10:58 PM, June 3, 2011
'As someone who spent time in the Soviet Union while it still existed, the notion of airbrushing kind of gives me the creeps," New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller said in 2003.
Keller was speaking in favor of the idea that the Pulitzer board should not rescind the prize it awarded the Times' Walter Duranty for reporting pro-Stalinist lies in the 1930s.
This week the Times appeared to many to have airbrushed its own history. And how delicious that what looked like a little fact-purge took place in the context of the announcement that Jill Abramson will succeed Keller as the paper's top editor.
As National Review's Jay Nordlinger was the first to point out, Abramson's colorful quotation about the Times' importance to her appeared online Thursday -- then was removed.
The Times initially quoted Abramson as saying, "In my house growing up, the Times substituted for religion. If the Times said it, it was the absolute truth."
This is the kind of juicy remark journalists live for, especially when trying to spice up a press release. Religions operate on faith, don't they? Faith means accepting things that may not be explained. Religion doesn't need to prove anything. It's pretty much the opposite of journalism.
All of this is much tastier fodder than one expects in a writeup of a corporate memo.
These remarks later disappeared from the story. Times writer Jeremy Peters wrote Nordlinger that "nothing was scrubbed" and that he had simply removed Abramson's (colorful) comments from the press release and replaced them with the (bland) ones she made at the press conference. "I rewrote the story," he said, "swapping out nearly all of [Abramson's and other editors'] old quotes for fresh quotes that came from their speeches."
Maybe. Maybe Peters is merely a bad writer who didn't realize he had zingier quotes the first time around and that their being written rather than spoken didn't change that. Some might find it hard to credit his claim that, in that their being written rather than spoken didn't change that. Some might find it hard to credit his claim that, in
1,000 words, he was pressed for space.
Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. said in 2003 that to revoke the Duranty Pulitzer might "evoke the Stalinist practice to airbrush purged figures out of official records and histories." The Times left a suspicion that it doesn't mind airbrushing records, at least when it comes to matters trivial -- so how about cleaning up the far more important Duranty affair by demanding the Pulitzer folks rescind the honor they bestowed on his reprehensible reporting?
As the Times learned in the Jayson Blair period, it is better to correct mistakes late than never.
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