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.”