Thursday, July 07, 2005


How on earth does this happen?

One Phillip Carter, an Army reserve officer, writes a short op-ed piece to the New York Times on the topic of military recruitment and ways to stir Americans to patriotic duty. It reads, in part:

President Bush’s second inaugural address, with its vision of America’s mission to spread freedom, offers a good platform for a recruiting pitch. And he could broaden his message beyond just military service by calling for young Americans to serve in all areas where their country needs them, from front lines of homeland security to those of inner-city education.

Still, the military is where the need is most acute. Recruiting duty may be the toughest job in the Army today; many recruiting sergeants would probably rather be with a combat unit in Iraq than hitting the high schools in Illinois.

A presidential recruiting speech may not fill every barracks, nor will it induce every old soldier to sign on for another tour, but it would help remind potential soldiers of what we’re fighting for.

Yet at some point, an editor inserts words into it that Carter never wrote. Such as, "Imagine my surprise the other day when I received orders to report to Fort Campbell, Ky., next Sunday," a call-up that led to a "surprise tour of Iraq."

I was an editorial page editor for several years. You may edit such pieces for length -- trim out extraneous sentences and paragraphs if doing so does not mar the meaning. But you do not put whole sentences and ideas into people's mouths that they did not say or write. That's as bad as fudging a quote. Journalists get fired for that -- and rightly so.

Here's how the New York Times corrected itself on this one:

The Op-Ed page in some copies of Wednesday's newspaper carried an incorrect version of the below article about military recruitment. The article also briefly appeared on before it was removed. The writer, an Army reserve officer, did not say, "Imagine my surprise the other day when I received orders to report to Fort Campbell, Ky., next Sunday," nor did he characterize his recent call-up to active duty as the precursor to a "surprise tour of Iraq." That language was added by an editor and was to have been removed before the article was published. Because of a production error, it was not. The Times regrets the error. A corrected version of the article appears below.

"... was to have been removed before the article was published." What can that mean? I have a mental image, but I pray, for the sake of the New York Times, this is wrong. It's possible that the editor read Carter's reasonable call for public service and rolled his eyes at it as the work of another sheep lulled by Shrubbie McChimpler's Rovian Right-Wing Noise Machine. You know, the cliched response of what is called, on the right, "Bush Derangement Syndrome."

And the editor made a snarky change to the text, maliciously making Carter into a hapless figure tricked into the presumed quagmire of Iraq. And he passed it around to like-minded friends in his newsroom. And somehow that version of the story, not the unchanged one, got into the computer typesetters.

It happens. I've been in newsrooms where it happens. Copy editing gets awfully boring. And this particular hatchet job has the look and feel of the anti-war left's "chickenhawk meme," which says everyone who talks positively about American military efforts abroad ought to pick up a gun right now and go serve in Iraq, or else shut up. It certainly is inconsistent with the voice of the rest of Carter's piece.

Like I said, I hope I'm wrong. Because I don't like what this says about the culture of the New York Times. But is there a better explanation?