A week ago, the NYT's hoax-prone City Room blog posted a story about a 32-year-old computer consultant, Jeff Ragsdale, and his 29-year-old girlfriend, Megan Brady, who works in advertising.
The post concerned the fact that Brady wasn't speaking to Ragsdale, a situation Ragsdale was trying to fix by holding up a sign in Madison Square Park -- near the advertising agency where Brady works.
Late yesterday, after six days of follow-up reporting, the blog's editors came forward to insist that they were "unable to prove that the story of Jeff and Megan, such as it is, is a hoax."
But that's a rather odd conclusion for the NYT to draw, given the fact that it turns out that few facts in last week's blog post turned out to be provable, or true.
Ragsdale isn't 32 years old. There's no evidence that he's employed as a computer consultant. Brady isn't 29 years old. She doesn't work at an advertising agency. During the time period that Ragsdale was holding up the sign, claiming that Brady wasn't speaking to him, Brady sent Ragsdale a message via her Facebook page.
Ragsdale had told the NYT that their relationship had lasted six months, but a network news show reported them having been together for two years.
But Friday's City Room blog post -- written by editors Andy Newman and Wendell Jamieson -- isn't presented as a correction, even though it's now clear that the original post contained several errors by freelance reporter Elisa Mala.
Instead, the post's purpose was to exonerate the NYT blog on charges that it has been the victim of a hoax -- a separate, serious issue for the blog, given that it had already been hoaxed twice in recent weeks.
"After days of reporting and interviews, we’ve been unable to prove that the story of Jeff and Megan, such as it is, is a hoax," the post states. "Many details in the post are accurate."
Really? Which details are accurate?
The only details in the original story that the NYT states that it has able to independently confirm are that Ragsdale and Brady went to the same high school in Bellingham, Washington.
The original story also reports that Brady's mother died of cancer, and that Ragsdale's parents (including an alcoholic father) are dead. Maybe those facts are true, too, but the NYT doesn't say whether it confirmed them or not.
And yet -- despite the heavy preponderance of errors in the original post -- the City Room blog saw fit to focus instead yesterday on the impossible-to-prove point of whether Ragsdale and Brady had hoaxed the NYT.
Why? Well, it's true that media attention -- including The NYTPicker's own story last Saturday morning, which was the first to report many of the inconsistencies in Mala's account -- focused on the likelihood that the NYT had been hoaxed.
The NYTPicker story revealed the fact that both Ragsdale and Brady were actors, and that Ragsdale had made a regular habit of staging stunts for the purpose of publicity.
Regardless of whether the couple was actually having a quarrel, it seemed clear to us then -- and still seems clear -- that Ragsdale's appearance in Madison Square Park was an obvious (and successful) effort to attract publicity for himself.
But the fact that the City Room blog allowed itself to be sucked into a media stunt -- and without any effort to fact-check the assertions of its principals -- seems irrelevant to the NYT City Room blog.
Only at the end of the post about the two actors yesterday do the NYT editors acknowledge "lingering doubts about their veracity."
To us, that's an astonishing statement. It means that the NYT still suspects that on some level, the story they published was fundamentally false.
And yet the NYT offers no admission to its readers of shoddy reporting, and no apology for publishing a story that it still feels may be untrue.
The NYT may think that by publishing the post yesterday, it was demonstrating transparency.
But by focusing its attention on the one question no one can answer -- whether Megan and Jeff were engaged in a media hoax -- the paper distracted attention from the larger truth about its own serious and embarrassing failures on this story.