On Thursday, May 20th -- more than two weeks after the NYT published an embarrassing page-one news analysis that sharply questioned the severity of the BP oil spill, followed by an equally embarrassing Editor's Note about its sourcing -- the NYT quietly slipped a correction into the paper that fundamentally undercut the faulty story's premise even further.
"A news analysis article on May 4 about the severity of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, using information from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, misstated the amount of oil that was spilled in 1991 into the Persian Gulf by Iraqi forces in Kuwait," the correction read. "The agency now puts the figure at 252 million to 336 million gallons -- not 36 billion gallons, as it initially estimated."
Hmmm. Out of context, it's hard to know how significant a correction that might be.
But when you go back and look at the news analysis, you discover that the correction removes the story's primary statistic -- the first one cited by reporters John M. Broder and Tom Zeller Jr. in their campaign to correct the view that the oil spill was "unprecedented," as President Obama had already called it.
The story asserted that we were in "the first inning of a nine-inning game," a quote the reporters attributed to someone described as "an expert" -- and that the Deepwater Horizon spill was "not unprecedented, nor is it yet among the worst oil accidents in history."
The NYT analysis went on to declare: "The ruptured well, currently pouring an estimated 210,000 gallons of oil a day into the gulf, could flow for years and still not begin to approach the 36 billion gallons of oil spilled by retreating Iraqi forces when they left Kuwait in 1991."
Yes, but that was wrong. The correction makes clear that the reporters used a phony statistic to make their point. There's a big difference between 232 million gallons and 36 billion gallons.
More important, Zeller and Broder should have known then -- and have since come to understand -- that this wasn't simply a numbers game.
On May 28, Zeller reported in the NYT that the spill had been "established as the worst oil spill in U.S. history, far surpassing the Exxon Valdez disaster from 1989."
That version of events also contradicts the Broder/Zeller news analysis on May 4, which stated:
And it will have to get much worse before it approaches the impact of the Exxon Valdez accident of 1989, which contaminated 1,300 miles of largely untouched shoreline and killed tens of thousands of seabirds, otters and seals along with 250 eagles and 22 killer whales.
The morning the Broder/Zeller story appeared, we were troubled by its seeming determination to show that the spill wasn't as bad as some were saying. We're no engineers, but somehow that seemed a risky assertion.
So we started poking around, and quickly discovered that the reporters had interviewed sources with direct ties to the oil industry. The NYTPicker reported on it that morning (as did a professor at UC Davis, who posted his concerns on the Huffington Post), and by the next day the NYT had printed an Editors' Note, acknowedging the faulty sourcing.
The damage and destruction caused by the Deepwater Horizon explosion has since become the stuff of history.
Today's NYT leads the front page with a story reporting that "the amount equivalent to the Exxon Valdez disaster could be flowing into the Gulf of Mexico every 8 to 10 days."
As long as the NYT continues to call itself the "newspaper of record," it will have to answer for that shameful piece, passing for journalism, that it published on May 4, 2010.
[UPDATE: See comments section below for discussion of "newspaper of record" reference.}