NY Times buried correction of false anecdote supporting "cool" Clinton-Obama relationship, leaving questions unanswered

››› ››› MATT GERTZ

In its August 9 edition, The New York Times issued a correction to an August 7 article by reporter Jeff Zeleny, noting that an anecdote that Zeleny had used to support his thesis that "Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama have barely spoken to each other -- at least in any meaningful way -- for months" was false. The article, headlined "Competitors, Once Collegial, Now Seem Cool," asserted that "after the State of the Union address, the two senators found themselves doing back-to-back interviews on CNN. Mr. Obama went first, with Mrs. Clinton pacing a few feet away. Finally, an aide escorted her completely around the rotunda of the Russell Senate Office Building, avoiding walking directly by Mr. Obama." In fact, according to the correction, "Mrs. Clinton took a circuitous route past Mr. Obama not to avoid him, but to accommodate a television producer."

While the false anecdote has been removed from the online edition of the article, and the correction has been appended, the correction does not appear on the version of the article in the Nexis database. Zeleny did not identify his source for the original anecdote, and in its correction, the Times did not report the basis for Zeleny's claim. Further, the Times, whose corrections policy makes a distinction between "[s]ubstantive errors" -- which it defines as errors that have "materially affected the reader's understanding of a news development" -- and "narrower errors," treated the correction of the false anecdote as the latter, even though the anecdote reinforces a media stereotype of Clinton as calculating and "cool" (a word Zeleny used to describe a "stare" Clinton purportedly gave Obama at a different time). The anecdote also immediately preceded this sentence, which remains in the article: "Many Senate observers, even those close to Mrs. Clinton, say they believe she set the less-than-collegial tone."

From the original August 7 article, retrieved from the Nexis database:

The relationship began to change when Mr. Obama began musing aloud about a presidential bid. The day he opened his exploratory committee, several Senate observers said, he extended his hand and said hello on the Senate floor. She breezed by him, offering a cool stare.

One week later, after the State of the Union address, the two senators found themselves doing back-to-back interviews on CNN. Mr. Obama went first, with Mrs. Clinton pacing a few feet away. Finally, an aide escorted her completely around the rotunda of the Russell Senate Office Building, avoiding walking directly by Mr. Obama.

Many Senate observers, even those close to Mrs. Clinton, say they believe she set the less-than-collegial tone. But Mr. Obama offered a glimpse into his own competitiveness two years ago when a Chicago television reporter told him about snagging a hallway interview with Mrs. Clinton.

''I outpoll her in Illinois,'' Mr. Obama said. Then, realizing how his remark might sound, he added, ''That was a joke!''

In a September 30, 2004, "Editors' Note," the Times reported that it was instituting a new corrections policy in order "to give greater prominence to corrections of the most serious errors." From the "Editors' Note":

Starting tomorrow, corrections on Page A2 will be published in two groupings. Substantive errors -- those that have materially affected the reader's understanding of a news development -- will be addressed under the traditional heading, ''Corrections.'' Narrower errors -- those involving spelling, for example, or dates and historical references -- will be corrected under a second heading, ''For the Record.''

On any day when all of the corrections fall into the second category, the heading will read ''Corrections: For the Record.''

The Times recently ran a correction of a claim made about a different Democratic presidential candidate that reinforced another media-perpetuated stereotype. On July 29, the Times published the following (on Page 2 of the "Sunday Styles" section):

An article last Sunday about politicians' choice of clothing while campaigning referred incorrectly to the role of Naomi Wolf in Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign. She was a consultant on women's issues and outreach to young voters; she was not Mr. Gore's image consultant and was not involved in his decision to wear earth-toned clothing.

The apocryphal rumor about Wolf advising Gore to wear earth tones, repeated by the media as truth during the 2000 presidential campaign, provided potent ammunition for supporters of then-Gov. Bush to smear Gore. The correction addressed the following, in the original July 22 article by Guy Trebay (later updated in the online version):

"If somebody doesn't come across as real and believable in their image," [Democratic strategist Bill Carrick] said, "they're not going to be believable in their content, either."

They risk becoming Al Gore in earth tones, in other words, to cite a famously lampooned misstep the former presidential candidate undertook on the advice of Naomi Wolf, then his image consultant.

New York Times writers -- including Maureen Dowd in at least three columns, Peter Marks, Michiko Kakutani, and the paper's Editorial Desk -- were among the media that perpetuated the "earth tones" rumor during the 2000 campaign, though the July 29 correction was the Times' first on that issue.

Also, as Media Matters for America has noted, although the Times published a correction on April 20, 1994, for a March 18, 1994, article that included a falsehood regarding President Clinton's tenure as governor of Arkansas, the online version of the article still does not include the correction.

Network/Outlet
The New York Times
Stories/Interests
Propaganda/Noise Machine, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, 2008 Elections
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