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December 31, 2006

NY Time Lies In, Refuses To Correct, Abortion Story

Not errors, not misstatements, but out-and-out lies and misrepresentations in a story that are grossly contradicted by the official record. Even their own public editor is concerned by the lack of professionalism and devotion to the truth -- not that it will change anything in how the paper deals with the issue.

THE cover story on abortion in El Salvador in The New York Times Magazine on April 9 contained prominent references to an attention-grabbing fact. “A few” women, the first paragraph indicated, were serving 30-year jail terms for having had abortions. That reference included a young woman named Carmen Climaco. The article concluded with a dramatic account of how Ms. Climaco received the sentence after her pregnancy had been aborted after 18 weeks.

It turns out, however, that trial testimony convinced a court in 2002 that Ms. Climaco’s pregnancy had resulted in a full-term live birth, and that she had strangled the “recently born.” A three-judge panel found her guilty of “aggravated homicide,” a fact the article noted. But without bothering to check the court document containing the panel’s findings and ruling, the article’s author, Jack Hitt, a freelancer, suggested that the “truth” was different.

The issues surrounding the article raise two points worth noting, both beyond another reminder to double-check information that seems especially striking. Articles on topics as sensitive as abortion need an extra level of diligence and scrutiny — “bulletproofing,” in newsroom jargon. And this case illustrates how important it is for top editors to carefully assess the complaints they receive. A response drafted by top editors for the use of the office of the publisher in replying to complaints about the Hitt story asserted that there was “no reason to doubt the accuracy of the facts as reported.”

Indeed -- despite the evidence of the official record of the court proceedings, including the scientific evidence, the official line of the New York Times is that hte article was fair, accurate, and truthful. Even though the information in it was false and the reporter never bothered to look at the official court transcripts in the case.

Yeah, you read that right.

Mr. Hitt said Ms. Climaco had been brought to his attention by the magistrate who decided four years ago that the case warranted a trial, so he had asked the magistrate for the court record. “When she told me that the case had been archived, I accepted that to mean that I would have to rely upon the judge who had been directly involved in the case and who heard the evidence” in the trial stage of the judicial process, Mr. Hitt wrote in an e-mail to me. So he didn’t pursue the document.

But obtaining the public document isn’t difficult. At my request, a stringer for The Times in El Salvador walked into the court building without making any prior arrangements a few days ago, and minutes later had an official copy of the court ruling. It proved to be the same document as the one disseminated by LifeSiteNews.com, which had been translated into English in early December by a translator retained by The Times Magazine’s editors. I’ve since had the stringer review the translation of key paragraphs for me.

The magistrate, Mr. Hitt noted, “had been helpful in other areas of the story and quite open.” So when she recalled one doctor’s estimate that Ms. Climaco’s pregnancy had been aborted at 18 weeks, he used that in the article. (The only 18-week estimate mentioned in the court ruling came from a doctor who hadn’t seen any fetus and whose deductions from the size of the uterus 17 hours after the birth were found by the three judges to be flawed.)

Mr. Hitt concluded the article with this summation of the Climaco case: “The truth was certainly — well, not in the ’middle’ so much as somewhere else entirely. Somewhere like this: She’d had a clandestine abortion at 18 weeks, not all that different from D.C.’s [another woman cited earlier in the story], something defined as absolutely legal in the United States. It’s just that she’d had an abortion in El Salvador.”

So the story was run based upon the word of the magistrate, and there was no attempt made to get a copy of the record -- a pretty shoddy piece of work. And what did the record show when the transcript was acquired, months after the piece ran in the NY Times magazine?

When Times Magazine editors provided me with an English-language version of the court findings on Dec. 8, just after the translation had been completed, there was little ambiguity in the court’s findings. “We have an already-formed and independent life here,” the court said. “Therefore we are not dealing with an abortion here, as the defense has attempted to claim in the present case.”

The physician who had performed the autopsy on the “recently born” testified that it represented a “full-term” birth, which he defined as a pregnancy with a duration of “between 38 and 42 weeks,” the ruling noted. In adopting those conclusions, the court said of another autopsy finding: “Given that the lungs floated when submerged in water, also indicating that the recently-born was breathing at birth, this confirms that we are dealing with an independent life.”

Yep -- a full-term pregnancy, a breathing child, and a murder. No abortion.

But how has the official NY Times responded to the situation? By defending the article, and refusing to acknowledge that its contents are false, all without allowing the facts to finally be checked.

The magazine’s failure to check the court ruling was then compounded for me by the handling of reader complaints about the issue. The initial complaints triggered a public defense of the article by two assistant managing editors before the court ruling had even been translated into English or Mr. Hitt had finished checking various sources in El Salvador. After being queried by the office of the publisher about a possible error, Craig Whitney, who is also the paper’s standards editor, drafted a response that was approved by Gerald Marzorati, who is also the editor of the magazine. It was forwarded on Dec. 1 to the office of the publisher, which began sending it to complaining readers.

The response said that while the “fair and dispassionate” story noted Ms. Climaco’s conviction of aggravated homicide, the article “concluded that it was more likely that she had had an illegal abortion.” The response ended by stating, “We have no reason to doubt the accuracy of the facts as reported in our article, which was not part of any campaign to promote abortion.”

And now that the facts are clear in the case, what is the response? To continue to defend the article as true, to reject the findings of the trial court as untrustworthy and possibly politicized, and to refuse to present a retraction or correction -- or even notify those who received the earlier response that new evidence was out there casting doubt on whether or not the article was fair or accurate.

The article was “as accurate as it could have been at the time it was written,” Mr. Marzorati wrote to me. “I also think that if the author and we editors knew of the contents of that third ruling, we would have qualified what we said about Ms. Climaco. Which is NOT to say that I simply accept the third ruling as ‘true’; El Salvador’s judicial system is terribly politicized.”

I asked Mr. Whitney if he intended to suggest that the office of the publisher bring the court’s findings to the attention of those readers who received the “no reason to doubt” response, or that a correction be published. The latest word from the standards editor: “No, I’m not ready to do that, nor to order up a correction or Editors’ Note at this point.”

In other words, what are the standards at the NY Times? No standards -- not when it might present the paper in a bad light, and so the Times stands by the article that is factually untrue. So much for the "paper of record".

UPDATE: 1/2/2007: Well, looks like some others are picking up on the story -- including Michelle Malkin, The Saloon, Elmer's Brother, The Coffeespy, Blake's Blog, Hot Air, Roger L. Simon, Custos Fidei

UPDATE 1/3/2007" Could it be that the only staff member to lose his position over this scandal (at least in part) will be public editor Barney Calame -- because he has once agaain taken a position critical of, rather than endorsing, outrageous actions by the Time editorial staff?





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