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Op-Eds And Fact-Checking

Will Kristol's gaffe prompt change in policy at NYT?
March 17, 2008

The New York Times has long given its op-ed columnists a virtual free hand, exempting their copy from the layers of editing and fact-checking that a regular Times news story would undergo before it appeared in the paper. But today’s Obama misstep from Bill Kristol suggests that maybe it’s time to reconsider this laissez faire approach.

Here’s where Kristol, parroting a claim from the conservative site, Newsmax, parted ways with reality:

Ronald Kessler, a journalist who has written about [Barack Obama’s pastor Jeremiah] Wright’s ministry, claims that Obama was in fact in the pews at Trinity last July 22. That’s when Wright blamed the “arrogance” of the “United States of White America” for much of the world’s suffering, especially the oppression of blacks.

Just after seven this morning, the Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder pointed out that Obama did not attend services at Trinity that day, as he was in Miami. The Obama campaign, too, denied that the candidate had been present for the sermon.

That prompted Ronald Kessler, of Newsmax, to add a confusingly worded “clarification” to the story Kristol cited. By just after noon, Kristol himself had, appropriately, added a note to the top of the online version of his column, expressing regret for the error.

The Times presumably wants to avoid factual errors of any kind on its op-ed pages, but especially on controversial campaign issues. An obvious way to do that is to fact-check these pieces. If anything, op-eds cry out for more rigorous fact-checking than ordinary news stories, not less. As in this case, they often deal with provocative topics, and exert a greater influence over the public debate than news stories, thus exacerbating the damage a factual error can cause. And, unlike some breaking news stories, op-eds tend to have a bit more lead time, making fact-checking more plausible.

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But there’s no indication that the Times plans to change its policy on op-eds, despite Kristol’s error. A spokeswoman for the paper at first argued to me that since Kristol was merely citing a report in another news outlet, he hadn’t written anything technically inaccurate. After Kristol’s acknowledgement of the error appeared to make that argument “inoperative,” I followed up, but have not received further reply.

It’s also worth noting that, of the eleven columns Kristol has so far written for the Times, two have contained clear factual errors (his first column, which appeared January 7, attributed a quote by one conservative writer, Michael Medved to another, Michelle Malkin). If the paper wants to continue to allow its columnists’ work to go unchecked, maybe it could at least make an exception for Kristol?

Zachary Roth is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets.