Wednesday, May 15, 2024

I've spent almost a decade pointing out Nate Cohn's statistical and logical errors. It's a nice change of pace to talking about his plain old bad reporting.

From Monday's NYT:

Gerard Willingham, 30, works as a web administrator and lives in Riverdale, Ga. He voted for Mr. Biden in 2020, but he plans to vote for a third-party candidate in November because of the president’s response to the conflict in Gaza, the issue about which he cares most right now.

“I think it’s made quite a bit of difference in that it made me more heavily than in the past push toward voting for a third party, even if I feel that the candidates almost 100 percent won’t win,” Mr. Willingham said. “It’s starting to reach into my moral conscience, I guess.”

I doubt Cohn himself actually did any of the interviewing for this story, but it's his byline so he gets to take responsibility for this...


Before I share a tweet, I like to check out the source (and often more importantly, who follows them). This guy looks pretty solid. 


 As far as I know, there's no way of telling when the NPR's Fowler saw the NYT story, but The tweet was time stamped at 12:37 PM the same day that NYT article ran so it was at most a matter of hours for him to do the research necessary to uncover the lie. Furthermore, he did this on his own without the resources of the paper of record.

Since then, other details have emerged supporting the idea that Willingham lied or the paper misreported what he said.

This is the latest in a long series of fact checking fails in the political reporting of the New York Times, as was noted by a number of tweets along these lines.

To understand what's going on here you first need to go back to the process behind the typical New York Times story (according to former editor, Michael Cieply). 

From Deadline: [Emphasis added.]

Having left the Times on July 25, after almost 12 years as an editor and correspondent, I missed the main heat of the presidential campaign; so I can’t add a word to those self-assessments of the recent political coverage. But these recent mornings-after leave me with some hard-earned thoughts about the Times’ drift from its moorings in the nation at-large.

For starters, it’s important to accept that the New York Times has always — or at least for many decades — been a far more editor-driven, and self-conscious, publication than many of those with which it competes. Historically, the Los Angeles Times, where I worked twice, for instance, was a reporter-driven, bottom-up newspaper. Most editors wanted to know, every day, before the first morning meeting: “What are you hearing? What have you got?”
It was a shock on arriving at the New York Times in 2004, as the paper’s movie editor, to realize that its editorial dynamic was essentially the reverse. By and large, talented reporters scrambled to match stories with what internally was often called “the narrative.” We were occasionally asked to map a narrative for our various beats a year in advance, square the plan with editors, then generate stories that fit the pre-designated line.

Reality usually had a way of intervening. But I knew one senior reporter who would play solitaire on his computer in the mornings, waiting for his editors to come through with marching orders. Once, in the Los Angeles bureau, I listened to a visiting National staff reporter tell a contact, more or less: “My editor needs someone to say such-and-such, could you say that?”

The bigger shock came on being told, at least twice, by Times editors who were describing the paper’s daily Page One meeting: “We set the agenda for the country in that room.”

The impetus is on the reporter first and foremost to find anecdotes which support the narrative. I'm certain there are times when a reporter will come back the next day with a great quote that goes against the story the editor wanted to tell – – most journalists on some level want to be good at their jobs – – but that's not how the incentives line up. The safest course of action is to find someone who will say what your boss wants to hear. The more difficult it is to find those narrative aligned anecdotes, the less likely a reporter, particularly a journeyman reporter overworked and with little sense of job security, will be to look a gift source in the mouth.

The other part of the equation is a lack of consequences for leaving out significant facts or printing things that just aren't true. If the people at the top actually cared about getting these details right, these mistakes would become increasingly rare and, when one did slip through, it would immediately be addressed and very publicly corrected. Furthermore, routinely getting facts wrong would not be a path career success with the paper.

As of this writing, neither Nate Cohn nor the New York Times have acknowledged the error, let alone fixed it.

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