Accuracy in Media

Once again, the New York Times has gotten a story wrong, misrepresented facts and responded with characteristic knee-jerk hostility when urged to correct an error.

The story in question is far from momentous, yet the abject refusal by the paper to amend an error, even in the face of evidence, is emblematic of the trend with which the Times has been operating and speaks to its criteria for those inconvenient facts that stand in the way of much of the mainstream media’s modus operandi.

Since May of 2000, the New York Times has hosted an article on its website about Bennett Haselton, a former Microsoft employee. At twenty-one years old, and long after he had ceased working for Microsoft, Bennett uncovered a flaw in that company’s Internet Explorer software which he could use to read the in-boxes of HotMail accounts and order products on without the account holders’ knowledge.

According to the article, “Haselton worked at Microsoft from May 1999 until January [2000] and he had hoped to become a software engineer tasked to ferret out bugs for the company. He said that he was not allowed to take training courses and was instead dismissed from the company.” In other words, he was fired.

The truth of the matter, however, is that Haselton wasn’t fired. He left voluntarily and in good standing, and he has subsequently published his personal Microsoft file to prove it (see:, a copy of which was also provided to the New York Times in an effort to get them to publish a correction.

Sometime later, Haselton’s new employer came across the original piece and believed that Bennett had lied about his previous employment status and, as could be expected, was concerned. The matter was resolved however when the employer did minimal research and saw the published personnel file and found that Haselton had been telling the truth.

The question is this: if an employer, unaccountable to any journalistic standards, could find documentary evidence speaking to the truth of claims made by one of his employees, why would the Times (1) publish a distortion without any basis in fact, and (2) refuse to publish a correction when their error is pointed out to them?

The editor’s desk at the New York Times has so far failed to respond to AIM’s request for a comment on the issue; however, the e-mail correspondence between Mr. Haselton and the Times (which are also published) manage to shed some light on the paper’s position.

After weeks of runaround, Haselton finally received the following reply from Public Editor Arthur Bovino in response to his repeated requests that a correction be published: “[T]he piece that offended you all those years ago never appeared in the New York Times [print edition] and a correction is not warranted. As far as this office is concerned this matter is resolved.”

But why should it matter if the piece was in print or in html? It still carries the Times seal of approval and people, including Haselton’s employer, are still finding it and drawing erroneous conclusions based on it.

Regardless of what the office of the public editor had to say, however, the matter wasn’t resolved. Haselton had run into problems with his employer and understandably assumed that a major newspaper would be anxious to print the truth.

Perplexed and unsatisfied, Haselton continued to petition the office of the public editor at the Times (which, ironically, was created to “restore reader confidence” and rebuild that paper’s reputation for accuracy in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal) and received this final rejoinder: “Mr. Haselton, we’ve said all we have to say on this subject.”

The issue at hand isn’t whether or not this story is immensely consequential, it clearly isn’t. As Haselton himself said: I’m not under any delusions that this is a significant story, but my feeling is that if the New York Times can’t even correct something this straightforward, they can hardly have much credibility with regard to more important stories.”

Quite right. It’s for reasons like this, the perpetual botching of seemingly straightforward news stories, the reasons for which can charitably be described as unascertainable, that the New York Times and its ilk in the mainstream media are steadily suffering both a loss of credibility and readership. If they have any inclination to stymie this persistent decline, perhaps the office of the public editor should be a touch more open to public editing.

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