In a page-one NYT story last Friday on the controversy over President Obama's planned schools speech, reporters James C. McKinley Jr. and Sam Dillon (pictured, at left) accused Canadian author Mark Steyn of comparing Obama to Saddam Hussein and the North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.
Trouble is, he didn't.
Here's what the NYT reported:
Mr. Obama’s speech was announced weeks ago, but the furor among conservatives reached a fever pitch Wednesday morning as right-wing Web sites and talk show hosts began inveighing against it.
Mark Steyn, a Canadian author and political commentator, speaking on the Rush Limbaugh show on Wednesday, accused Mr. Obama of trying to create a cult of personality, comparing him to Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong-il, the North Korean leader.
But here's what Steyn actually said on Limbaugh's show last Wednesday, as transcribed by The NYTPicker:
What [Obama]'s going to do, apparently, is he's going to tell them to write letters to themselves about what they can do to help the President. Which I find slightly unhealthy. It's all part of the cult of personality. Obviously it's not -- we're not talking about the cult of personality on the kind of Kim Jong-il, Saddam Hussein scale.
Clearly, Steyn's actual words convey a meaning quite different than what the NYT reporters represented. While he did raise the notion of a "cult of personality," he was obviously not comparing the president to those leaders, except to suggest a clear, obvious difference in scale.
The implication of the NYT's report is that Steyn was linking Obama to those legendary despots, which seems to us incorrect and unfair. By leaving out the fact that Stein was in fact differentiating Obama from them, the implication strikes us as considerably different than what Steyn intended with his words -- particularly given the context of the article's overall point.
Interestingly, the mistaken McKinley/Dillon reference has been picked up in David Carr's "Media Equation" column today, in which Carr writes: "During the school dust-up, a commentator on Rush Limbaugh’s radio show said the president was building a cult of personality analogous to Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong-il." Clearly that's not correct. It also underscores the point that the McKinley/Dillon story -- Carr's apparent source -- misrepresented Steyn's quote.
Of course, the term "cult of personality" obviously reflects a criticism, which seems to us precisely why Steyn drew the distinction from more infamous such cults. Indeed, the NYT's own Paul Krugman used the same term in reference to Obama during the 2008 campaign, saying, "I"m not the first to point out that the Obama campaign seems dangerously close to becoming a cult of personality." Obviously, Krugman didn't intend for readers to think he was comparing Obama to Hussein or Kim Jong-il, either.
Mark Steyn lightly tweaked the NYT for the mistake in a weekend column in the National Review, laughing it off with a self-deprecating comment about the pain of being identified as "a Canadian author." We admire his muted reaction, considering the harsh tone of the NYT's reference.
Normally we don't address factual mistakes in NYT articles here. We don't consider ourselves in the business of pointing out basic NYT errors -- plus we just don't have that kind of time on our hands. Besides, we all make mistakes.
But in this case it seems hard to understand how top NYT national desk reporters like McKinley and Dillon could get a quote like that completely wrong, particularly when quoting a national radio show that millions hear.
And when it comes to accusing someone of comparing Barack Obama to widely-reviled foreign leaders in a page-one news story, you'd think -- or at least hope -- NYT reporters (and their editors) would be responsible enough to make sure it was bring reported correctly.
We've emailed NYT national editor Suzanne Daley and NYT spokeswoman Diane McNulty twice in the last 24 hours for comment on how this mistake got made. We'll update if and when they respond.
UPDATE: On Tuesday, the NYT ran a correction on the McKinley/Dillon story:
An article on Friday about criticism of President Obama’s plan to address schoolchildren on Tuesday referred incorrectly to remarks by Mark Steyn, a Canadian author and political commentator, on the Rush Limbaugh show. (The Media Equation column in Business Day on Monday also included the incorrect reference.) Mr. Steyn made extensive reference to Saddam Hussein’s cult of personality in Iraqi schools, and said an attempt to create a “cult of personality at grade-school level” should have no place in the United States, but said he was not accusing the president of a “cult of personality on the kind of Kim Jong-il, Saddam Hussein scale." He did not explicitly compare the president to Saddam or the North Korean leader or say that Mr. Obama’s efforts were “analagous” to theirs.