Taking the easy way out
NYT puts itself in front of the battering ram with abortion story
Byron Calame, whose tenure as the New York Times’ Public Editor has seemed largely lukewarm to me, finally hit a home run. He caught the Times Magazine in what appears to be an embarrassing and simply wrong reportorial posture. Prepare to be hit with this example the next time you’re accused of being an apologist for the liberal media.
This unfolded in three parts, the first on New Year’s Eve, the second two parts on the day I’m posting this, Jan. 7.
You can read what follows and draw your own conclusion. For my money, there’s not a soul in journalism who hasn’t fallen prey, for honest or dishonest reasons, to the kind of conduct described herein. (Pay close attention to a letter to the Public Editor that appears lower down from a former Austin American-Statesman reporter, Bill Bishop.)
PART I: THE PUBLIC EDITOR STRIKES
Truth, Justice, Abortion and The Times Magazine
By Byron Calame
Dec. 31, 2006
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.”
Apart from the flawed example of Ms. Climaco, Mr. Hitt’s 7,800-word cover article provided a broad and intriguing look at a nation where the penal code allows prison sentences for a woman who has an abortion, the provider of the procedure or anyone who assisted. His interviews with doctors, nurses, police officers, prosecutors, judges and both opponents and advocates of abortion offered revealing personal perspectives on the effects of the criminalization of the procedure.
Complaints about the article began arriving at the paper after an anti-abortion Web site, LifeSiteNews.com, reported on Nov. 27 that the court had found that Ms. Climaco’s pregnancy ended with a full-term live birth. The headline: ”New York Times Caught in Abortion-Promoting Whopper — Infanticide Portrayed as Abortion.” Seizing on the misleading presentation of the article’s only example of a 30-year jail sentence for an abortion, the site urged viewers to complain to the publisher and the president of The Times. A few came to me.
The care taken in the reporting and editing of this example didn’t meet the magazine’s normal standards. Although Sarah H. Smith, the magazine’s editorial manager, told me that relevant court documents are ”normally” reviewed, Mr. Hitt never checked the 7,600-word ruling in the Climaco case while preparing his story. And Mr. Hitt told me that no editor or fact checker ever asked him if he had checked the court document containing the panel’s decision.
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.”
The caption under Ms. Climaco’s picture was notably specific. It stated flatly that she ”was given 30 years for an abortion that was ruled a homicide.”
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.”
Exceptional care must be taken in the reporting process on sensitive articles such as this one to avoid the slightest perception of bias. Paul Tough, the editor on the article, acknowledged in an e-mail to me that in reporting this story, Mr. Hitt used an unpaid translator who has done consulting work for Ipas, an abortion rights advocacy group, for his interviews with Ms. Climaco and D.C. This wasn’t ideal, he said, but the risk posed for sources in this situation required the use of intermediaries ”to some degree.”
Ipas used The Times’s account of Ms. Climaco’s sentence to seek donations on its Web site for ”identifying lawyers who could appeal her case” and to help the organization ”continue critical advocacy work” across Central America. ”A gift from you toward our goal of $30,000 will help Carmen and other Central American women who are suffering under extreme abortion laws,” states the Web appeal, which Ipas said it took down after I first contacted the organization on Dec. 14. An Ipas spokeswoman called the appeal ”moderately successful.”
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.” After the English translation of the court ruling became available on Dec. 8, I asked Mr. Marzorati if he continued to have ”no reason to doubt the accuracy of the facts” in the article. His e-mail response seemed to ignore the ready availability of the court document containing the findings from the trial before the three-judge panel and its sentencing decision. He referred to it as the ”third ruling,” since the trial is the third step in the judicial process.
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.”
One thing is clear to me, at this point, about the key example of Carmen Climaco. Accuracy and fairness were not pursued with the vigor Times readers have a right to expect.
PART II: TIMES READERS RESPOND
Other Voices: When the Facts Need More Checking
Jan, 7, 2007
I see the problems with the April 9 Jack Hitt article as part of a larger problem facing reporters. Editors want the killer example. It’s not enough to write an article that provides, as you describe Mr. Hitt’s article, ”a broad and intriguing look” at a subject. For a reporter to get on the front page, or for a freelancer to get in the magazine, he or she needs the fist-slamming anecdote.
The question is, would Mr. Hitt’s piece have gotten in The New York Times without the drama of the 30-year jail sentence? Would The Times have purchased ”a broad and intriguing look” on any subject, for that matter, that didn’t have either celebrity, outrage or some kind of goodness-gracious hook?
Every reporter knows this drill. You find an interesting story that is, like all things interesting, also complicated. You describe this complex story to editors, who inevitably ask, often blankly, ”Where are the real people?” So reporters hit the phones looking for just the right example and the stories roll out with the strained anecdotal leads that push any fact or explanation on past the jump. Editors say this kind of narrative diversion is what readers want. It’s interesting (to me, at least) that most of the journalistic scandals come down to reporters creating ”real people.”
Austin, Tex., Jan. 1, 2007
The writer is a former reporter for The Austin American-Statesman.
I was startled to read that The Times Magazine’s editor distrusted a legal opinion from El Salvador because he, personally, believes that ”El Salvador’s judicial system is terribly politicized.”
Has it ever occurred to him, or to any of the other editors involved in this embarrassment, that it is because The Times’s reportorial and editing system is itself ”terribly politicized,” that is, terribly one-sided, that this misreporting occurred?
Eastchester, N.Y., Dec. 31, 2006
There is a relatively simple way to cut down on the type of attribution — or lack of attribution — errors you mention.
Most journalists today write on word-processing programs that have the capability to insert comments, footnotes or endnotes anywhere in a story.
Editors should require that reporters provide one of these insertions after every paragraph, stating how they know what they just wrote.
Such notes could include U.R.L.’s, references to specific pages in a reporter’s notebook, reference documents (for example, the court transcript you referred to) — anything that would allow the reporter and editors to backtrack from the manuscript and judge the veracity of the content or conclusions.
I would encourage making as much of this type of sourcing as possible available to online readers so they can judge for themselves, especially when public sites and documents are referenced.
Santa Fe, N.M., Jan. 2, 2007
The writer is a co-founder of the Institute for Analytic Journalism.
The April 9 Times Magazine article about the criminalization of abortion in El Salvador is a very important document. What does the maternal mortality and morbidity rate mean? It is one way of measuring the health of a society in that dimension so that it can be compared with others.
It also implies that every time there is a pregnancy, wanted or not, a woman’s health and her very life are at risk. There is no comparable paternal mortality or morbidity rate. Therefore it should be only a woman’s choice to carry or not carry a child each and every time.
If Carmen Climaco performed infanticide, the lesson should be that abortion should be legal, which would have allowed her to abort the fetus earlier. It also seems possible that the so-called autopsy findings were manipulated or fudged for political, social or other reasons. Without photos and verified pathology findings, it’s hard to know.
I agree that ”bulletproof” journalism is ideal. But it is also important to expose the effects of draconian laws on individuals.
ENID KLAUBER, M.D.
Tampa, Fla., Dec. 31, 2006
You identify Jack Hitt, the author of the magazine article you discuss, as a ”freelancer.” While this may be technically correct (he isn’t a full-time staff member of The Times), it at the very least might mislead the reader about his place as one of the most admired and scrupulous magazine writers in America today.
Before Mr. Hitt became a contributing writer at The Times Magazine, he spent over a decade writing lengthy, award-winning articles for commercial and literary magazines. He is a producer of the radio program ”This American Life,” and was for many years an editor at Harper’s Magazine. He is the author of one book, and the editor of several others.
I do not claim to know the details of the dispute you wrote about. What I do know is that it should be considered in the context of Mr. Hitt’s entire career.
ROBERT S. BOYNTON
New York, Jan. 2, 2007
The writer is an associate professor and the director of the magazine writing program, New York University Department of Journalism.
In the interests of full disclosure, I am passionately anti-abortion, for the simple reason that it’s a morally indefensible act. I suspect that The Times’s defense of abortion on demand is based on its belief that morality is ”personal,” which, in essence, means that there is no morality.
I want to congratulate you on your expose of shoddy, inaccurate and biased journalism (The Times does have the right to be illogical and biased on its editorial page). I anxiously await from the standards editor something more than the ”not ready to . . . order up a correction” cited in your column. Otherwise, I’ll assume that shoddiness, inaccuracy and bias are the standards.
Rockville Centre, N.Y., Dec. 31, 2006
[Note from the public editor: An editors’ note about the article appears in today’s paper.]
Part III: THE TIMES’ EDITOR’S NOTE
Jan. 7, 2007
An article in The Times Magazine on April 9 reported on the effects of laws that make all abortions illegal in El Salvador. One case the article described was that of Carmen Climaco, who is serving a 30-year prison sentence in El Salvador.
The article said she was convicted in 2002 of aggravated homicide, and it presented the recollections of the judge who adjudicated Ms. Climaco’s case during the pretrial stage. The judge, Margarita Sanabria, told The Times that she believed that Ms. Climaco had an abortion when she was 18 weeks pregnant, and that she regretted allowing the case to be tried as a homicide. The judge based her legal decision on two reports by doctors.
The first, by a doctor who examined Ms. Climaco after the incident, concluded that she had been 18 weeks pregnant and had an abortion. A second medical report, based on an examination of the body that was found under Ms. Climaco’s bed, concluded that her child was carried to term, was born alive and died in its first minutes of life.
The three-judge panel that received the case from Judge Sanabria concluded that the second report was more credible than the first, and the panel convicted Ms. Climaco of aggravated homicide.
The Times should have obtained the text of the ruling of the three-judge panel before the article was published, but did not vigorously pursue the document until details of the ruling were brought to the attention of editors in late November.
A picture caption with the article also misstated the facts of the ruling. Ms. Climaco was sentenced to 30 years in prison for a case that was initially thought to be an abortion but was later ruled to be a homicide; she was not given 30 years in prison for an abortion that was ruled a homicide.
Ms. Climaco is now preparing to appeal her conviction. The Times is continuing to investigate the case.