Everything Old Is New Again

When (extremely) old errors come back to haunt a paper

During The New York Times’s 4 p.m. news meeting on Tuesday, a gathering that draws top editors from the paper, the culture editor described a story for the next day’s paper that included a connection to a Times article from over a century ago

The current article reported about a secret inscription rumored to have been added to a watch belonging to Abraham Lincoln. On Tuesday, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History revealed that it had opened the watch and confirmed the presence of the hidden message.

“Basically, as an aside, the culture editor said: ‘Interestingly, the Times wrote an article on the jeweler [who made the engraving] in 1906 in which he discussed the inscription. But it turns out he had it wrong’,” says Greg Brock, a Times senior editor and the person in charge of the paper’s corrections.

The assembled editors shared a chuckle about the mistake from roughly a century ago. Brock, however, immediately locked eyes with Craig Whitney, the paper’s standards editor and his boss. “We both kind of raised our eyebrows as if to say. ‘Hmm, maybe we should…’,” he says.

They did. On Wednesday, the paper published a correction to the erroneous article from 1906:

An article on April 30, 1906, about a New York watch repairer, Jonathan Dillon, who recalled secretly inscribing Abraham Lincoln’s watch while working on it in a Washington jewelry store in 1861, misstated part of the inscription, using information from Mr. Dillon (who the article noted had, at eighty-four, “a remarkable memory.”) The inscription reads:

“Jonathan Dillon April 13- 1861 Fort Sumpter was attacked by the rebels on the above date J Dillon. April 13- 1861 Washington thank God we have a government Jonth Dillon.”

The inscription does not say, as Mr. Dillon recalled in 1906: “The first gun is fired. Slavery is dead. Thank God we have a President who at least will try.” (Besides misspelling Sumter, Mr. Dillon also inscribed the wrong date. The opening shot of the Civil War was on April 12.)

An article about the watch, which the Smithsonian opened on Tuesday to settle decades-long speculation about the inscription, is on Page C1.

Just five or ten years ago, editors were rarely, if ever, faced with decisions about whether or not to correct articles from years, decades, or even a century or more in the past. That began changing when Google’s search engine spidered its way into newspapers’ online archives.

The Times offers access to a range of free articles dating back to 1851. Other papers have also opened up sections of their archives to people and, by extension, search engines. One unforeseen consequence of these open archives is that people are contacting the Times and other papers to demand corrections to stories that were published long ago. This occasionally results in corrections such as this one from January of last year:

A Sports of The Times column on May 21, 1999, about the vocal presence of New York fans at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta for an N.B.A. playoff game between the Hawks and the Knicks, misspelled the surname of a fan from Howard Beach in Queens. He is Constantin Manta, not Marta. Mr. Manta pointed out the error in an e-mail message this week.

Brock says some weeks he receives a dozen archive correction requests from members of the public. Some are legitimate requests. Others strike Brock as being less so. One repeat caller warns Brock that she’ll sue the paper if he doesn’t change a reference to her race from the current “black” to “mixed race.”

Another woman has rung up Brock more than ten times to demand the paper correct a mention of her once wearing a size twelve dress. Brock notes that she saw the article—and the reference to her once being a size twelve—when it first appeared and never raised an objection. “But now that it is popping up on Google, she is mortified … she’s never worn more than a size eight, so she [feels she] is being humiliated by this article on the Web,” he says.

“At times, it becomes overwhelming,” Brock admits. These kinds of requests are part of the reason why the paper has realized it simply can’t correct every single factual error contained in older articles.

“We do not run corrections on every old article just because someone points out an error,” Brock says. “… In some cases, the person wants the record ‘updated.’ They have divorced that scoundrel we wrote about in their wedding announcement ten years ago and they want the wedding announcement removed from the archives.”

In August of 2007, Times public editor Clark Hoyt dedicated a column to the issue of correcting old articles. “People are coming forward at the rate of roughly one a day to complain that they are being embarrassed, are worried about losing or not getting jobs, or may be losing customers because of the sudden prominence of old news articles that contain errors or were never followed up,” he wrote.

Hoyt noted that, at the time, the paper didn’t have a set policy for correcting older stories. Things have evolved since then, though Brock says it often comes down to a judgement call.

One situation where the paper will always add a correction is if the Times reported that a person was charged with a felony but didn’t publish a subsequent article when the person was acquitted.

“We append a note to the article saying just that: the Times, after reporting the charges, failed to follow up on the resolution of the case and, in fact, the murder charges against Craig Silverman were dropped,” Brock says, using me as a hypothetical (I swear) example. “The case has to be a felony, not a misdemeanor, and the person has to give us legal documentation before we will append the note. We felt obliged to address this issue because of the explosion of people Googling their names. More important, prospective employers were Googling the names of these people, not realizing that they had been acquitted.”

Brock emphasizes that the paper never removes errors from its archives, be they digital or in printed form.

“We do not alter the actual articles in the archives,” he says. “We consider those sacrosanct. We also need on file, for legal reasons, the article as it appeared in the event some issue is raised.”

This policy requires Brock to physically attach a correction to an article in the printed archive in addition to adding it to the online version. It has the effect of adding a footnote to history. (Brock does the same cut and paste operation for corrections to recent articles.)

Sure, it’s a bit tedious and labor intensive, but things could be much worse.

“If we corrected every old article in which an error is cited, we would have to run several open pages of corrections each day,” Brock says.

Correction of the Week

“A letter to the editor, which touched lightly on English ignorance of Welsh matters, was attributed in an early edition to Hwyl Fawry. It should have been attributed to Gill Caldwell. She signed off her letter with hwyl fawr, which translates roughly as ‘all the best’ (March frogs, 6 March, page 35).” – The Guardian (U.K.)

Bad For Business

“A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Rick Steve’s business was a third of what it was last year. Rather, his business is down by one-third.” – Seattle Times

Parting Shot

“A headline in Tuesday’s Carolina Living section incorrectly described the Snuggie blanket as sleeveless. The blanket has sleeves.” – Charlotte Observer

Correction: This article originally said that The New York Times’s free online archives only dated back to 1981. In fact, the paper offers a range of free articles dating back to 1851. CJR regrets the error.

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Craig Silverman is the editor of RegretTheError.com and the author of Regret The Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech. He is also the editorial director of OpenFile.ca and a columnist for the Toronto Star.