New standards for accuracy should be set up immediately

by David Kopel

Rocky Mountain News. June 7, 2003

Last October, I criticized the "Raines of error" which I thought New York Times Executive Editor Howell Raines had brought to the paper.

On Thursday, Raines and his managing editor, Gerald Boyd, resigned. Raines' interim replacement will be Joseph Lelyveld, who served as executive editor before Raines.

The immediate cause of the departure of Raines and Boyd was the Jayson Blair fiasco, since Raines and Boyd had protected and promoted the young, brazenly mendacious journalist who had become a favorite of theirs. The Blair scandal unleashed a torrent of complaints from within the Times, making it clear that the autocratic Raines was perceived by much of the staff as a bully with no credibility.

Then there was the incident involving Rick Bragg, another reporter favorite of Raines', who recently resigned after being suspended for filing a story about oyster fishermen which was almost entirely the work of an uncredited stringer. (A stringer is a part-time journalist not on a newspaper's staff; usually but not always stringers are paid by the newspaper.)

The Bragg affair has led to a major debate on media-focused Web sites and Weblogs about how commonly stringers are used. One side claims Bragg's conduct was unusual; the other side says that big newspapers frequently use stringers to do the real reporting. For example, a June 5 article on www.narco (a Web site critical of the drug war in Latin America) reprints a letter from a Times Latin American stringer who claims that the in-country stringers do almost all the real reporting, while Times reporters show up, capture the byline and then leave.

At any rate, Lelyveld was known as a much more collegial boss than Raines, so morale within the Times building should improve sharply. Ironically, Blair had been hired during Lelyveld's tenure, and Bragg's reporting style flourished under him.

From the readers' viewpoint, some of the key improvement indicators for the Times will be much higher standards of factual accuracy (on both the news and the editorial side), elimination of "news analysis" pieces which are merely news-side editorials, and ending the use of anonymous sources in situations for which anonymity is unnecessary.

An important place to start for better accuracy would be Maureen Dowd's column. Her adulteration of a quote by President Bush (which I discussed two weeks ago) has led to the creation of the word "Dowdification" for changing a quote's meaning by omitting key words.

Last week, Dowd published a noncorrection correction in her column (which ran in the News). This time she used the full Bush quote accurately. But her false, edited version of the Bush quote has already been repeated by newspapers around the world, and the Times owed its readers the correction of a false quote.

Most false statements that appear in newspapers are not the result of a writer's conscious choice to deceive, but rather the tendency of some journalists to print something that "everyone" (i.e., their peer group) "knows" to be true. For example, a May 30 Post article about the recent deal between Microsoft and AOL (originally in The Baltimore Sun) asserted that "Microsoft's dominance in the software industry is virtually unchallenged."

Not exactly. Standard & Poors' latest study of "Computers: Software" says that revenues in the "worldwide packaged software market" in 2001 were $171 billion. The leading company in this field was IBM, with $48 billion in software revenues. Microsoft was second, with $24 billion. So Microsoft has only about 15 percent of the total market.

For some product lines, such as personal computer operating systems, Microsoft does have a very large market share. But that's not the same as being "virtually unchallenged" in the software business as a whole.

High on the list of new facts which everyone will be required to believe without question is the wickedness of "trans fats."

A May 29 article in the News (by Emily Gersema of the Associated Press) claimed that "studies show that they \[trans fats\] increase the risk of heart disease by lowering levels of good cholesterol, or HDL, while raising levels of bad cholesterol, or LDL."

Well, it's more complicated than that. First of all, there are no studies showing that consumption of trans fats leads to heart disease. On JunkScience com, my Cato Institute colleague Steven Milloy explains that all eight human studies have found no such connection.

The article warned readers about eating "beef, butter and milk," because they have trans fats which would raise LDL and lower HDL. Well, I started the Atkins diet in January, and have been eating huge quantities of beef and butter. My bad LDL plunged, and my good HDL soared - results which Dr. Robert Atkins reported as typical for his patients.

So before you give up swell foods like beef and butter - which have been an important part of the human diet for thousands of years - do some research on your own, and talk to your doctor. Simply accepting what the newspapers tell you could be hazardous to your health.

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