Friday, June 11, 2010

WORST STORY OF 2010: An Early Winner -- That Page-One, May 4th Clunker By John M. Broder And Tom Zeller Jr., "Gulf Spill Is Bad, But How Bad?"

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.}


Anonymous said...

NYT has a definite bias for the Brits for some weird reason. If it was Exxon or any other American oil company instead of British Polluter they would have been falling all over themselves trying to prove how bad the spill is. This is not just another Fox News zombie speaking either but someone who has been following NYT for years.

P.S. I am sick and tired of reading about Sir someone or Lord somebody else in an American newspaper. I am not a subject of the queen, I am a citizen of the U S motherf**cking A!

Anonymous said...

How many times has the original story been copied into websites, blogs, etc. without the correction? To be used by oil industry apologists, anti-environmental groups and the like? Another telling example of how misinformation in the hew age of instant communication can stay ahead of the truth. I doubt that many close readers of the NY Times saw the correction....sigh

Anonymous said...

When and where did The Times ever call itself the newspaper of record?

Straw man, methinks.


Anonymous #3 is right. It's a term used by outsiders, not the NYT itself. We stand corrected.

What's not a "straw man" is the NYT's continued insistence that it offers the best news coverage in the world. (See Keller, Abramson, et al, ad nauseum.)

By that standard, the Broder/Zeller piece is the embarrassment we describe.

Anonymous said...

Actually, a 2004 Public Editor column by Daniel Okrent discussed the phrase as applied to the Times:

According to Times archivist Lora Korbut, the phrase first appeared in 1927, when the paper sponsored an essay contest to promote its annual index. Entrants were asked to elaborate on the contest's title, ''The Value of The New York Times Index and Files as a Newspaper of Record.'' (This probably did not attract as many contestants as ''The Apprentice.'') Somehow what began as a promotion for an index service soon adhered to the skin of the paper itself, perhaps because the meticulous presentation of the acts of officialdom was long one of the ways The Times distinguished itself in an eight-newspaper town.

Anonymous said...

Is John M. Broder related to David Broder, the political reporter? I've always wondered that.

Anonymous said...

Is NYTPicker related to the movie producer David Picker?

Anonymous said...

Re: 'Somehow what began as a promotion for an index service soon adhered to the skin of the paper itself, perhaps because the meticulous presentation of the acts of officialdom was long one of the ways The Times distinguished itself in an eight-newspaper town.'

There were also many other ways like huge agate compilations in sports, long lists of the arrival of buyers, complete weather data and the infamous "Fire Records."

Anonymous said...

Why is there no link (or addendum to the story) to the correction?

lefty said...

Anonymous #5, no, the two Broders are not related.

John B. may be best remembered for his vociferous coverage of the Clinton-Lewinsky affair.