iOS app Android app More

Melissa Kirsch

Melissa Kirsch

Posted April 13, 2009 | 02:11 PM (EST)

New York Times CorrectionWatch: Brilliant Idea Was Totally Bogus


Come on, New York Times. It pains me (albeit, only a tiny bit) to have to point out once again where you've blundered, but I can't let this go. It's true, the Charlton Heston Obituary Debacle was embarrassing, but this one is just downright hilarious.

From April 12, 2009's Corrections:

Editor's Note: Magazine

An article in the Year in Ideas issue on Dec. 14, 2008, reported on
Josh Klein, whose master's thesis for New York University's
Interactive Telecommunications Program proposed "a vending machine for
crows" that would enable the birds to exchange coins for peanuts. The
article reported that beginning in June 2008, Klein tested the machine
at the Binghamton Zoo, that the crows learned how to use it and that
after a month the crows were actually scouring the ground for loose
change.

The Times has since learned that Klein was never at the Binghamton
Zoo, and there were no crows on display there
in June 2008. He
performed these experiments with captive crows in a Brooklyn
apartment;
he told the reporter about the Brooklyn crows but implied
that his work with them was preliminary to the work at the zoo. Asked
to explain these discrepancies, Klein now says he and the reporter had
a misunderstanding about the zoo.

The reporter never called the zoo in Binghamton to confirm. And while
the fact-checker did discuss the details with Klein, he did not call
the zoo, as required under The Times's fact-checking standards
. In
addition, the article said that Klein was working with graduate
students at Cornell University and Binghamton University to study how
wild crows make use of his machine, which does exist. Klein did get a
professor at Binghamton to help him try it out twice in Ithaca, with
assistance from a Binghamton graduate student, and it was not a
success
. Corvid experts who have since been interviewed have said that
Klein's machine is unlikely to work as intended.

These discrepancies were pointed out to The Times by the Binghamton
professor several weeks after the article was published; this editors'
note was delayed for additional reporting. These details should have
been discovered during the reporting and editing process. Had that
happened, the article would not have been published.

I have sympathy for reporters who are on deadline and are trying to summon a wacky entry for that increasingly bizarre Year in Ideas issue of the NYT Magazine. My question, once again, is where are the editors? The reporter's negligence is called out, the fact-checker's flouting of Times "standards," but there's just a cursory note about the "editing process."

It's one thing to get a few facts wrong, it's another to report a totally fabricated tall tale and single it out as one of the best ideas of 2008. I'm mostly amused at the fact that a CROW VENDING MACHINE turned out to be a fake (and disappointed, because I've been laboring for four long months under the assumption that a bird could get peanuts for coins at the zoo). But I'm once again questioning the Paper of Record's editing process (we can only assume that Ideas issue was in the works for months) and wonder what kind of supervision the daily breaking news stories are getting. I tend to think if it's in the Times, it's true. Is this latest gaffe indicative of the breakdown of editorial process in the Age of the Blog?

Previously:
New York Times Violates (At Least) Ten Commandments of Journalism in Reporting Charles Heston's Death

New York Times Correction Tally on Heston Obituary Now Officially Farcical

New York Times Obituary Correction Watch: We'll Fix It When We Get Around To It

Melissa Kirsch is the author of The Girl's Guide to Absolutely Everything.