NYT ombudsman: Front page story about "women living without spouses" was crap

My words, not his. Although I’d love to hear his opinion off the record.

Last month I wondered whether the rumors of his termination and the alleged bad blood between him and Keller would lead Calame to hammer the Times in the few months he has left. He’d have nothing to lose and everything to gain by turning up the heat; with a string of strong pieces, the public editor position could come to be seen as so indispensable that Keller couldn’t eliminate it without taking flak.

He’s on his way.

Several readers, including some who perceived the article as an attack on family values, challenged the inclusion of 15-year-olds [in the sample], in e-mails to me and in comments posted on the Web version of The Times. “The article is a little deceiving because it is based on the percentage of women 15 and older who are not married,” wrote one reader, noting that “it’s not even legal to marry at 15” in many states. I couldn’t agree more.

The failure to prominently and clearly explain the methodology of the survey used was one of several journalistic lapses that I found in the handling of this story…

But editors may have made the problem worse. I saw the top portion of a draft of the article prepared by Mr. Roberts in which the age range was first mentioned in the 10th paragraph. The first reference in the published story was in the 21st paragraph.

When readers did get to the mention of what ages were included, it was incorrect.

Then comes this. Am I misreading it or is he accusing the reporter, Sam Roberts, of flat out lying to him?

When I began to look into reader concerns about the article shortly after it appeared, it became clear that there was confusion over the issue of 15-year-olds. Mr. Roberts initially told me, and wrote in an e-mail, that 15-year-olds had been excluded from the “raw numbers” cited in the article, mainly because he had discovered some states’ restrictions on marriage at that age. So the statements in the article and graphic that 15-year-olds were not counted seemed at first to be consistent with what Mr. Roberts had told me and the office of the standards editor last month.

My subsequent questions, however, led to Mr. Roberts’s eventual acknowledgment that 15-year-olds had been fully included in all the data. Seeking to explain that shift, he wrote in a Jan. 30 e-mail to me: “When I realized that nothing would change by eliminating 15-year-olds, I left the numbers as is, again for consistency.”

It’s possible, I guess, that Roberts had forgotten initially that he’d included 15-year-olds and only remembered when he consulted his notes. But if that’s his excuse, why didn’t Roberts tell him that? And why would Calame use the freighted word “acknowledgment,” which reads here like a synonym for “confession,” to describe what happened?

For that matter, why would Calame include this incredibly damning anecdote at all?

Because he’s out for blood, baby. That’s why.

Oh — Roberts turned out to be wrong, by the way, when he told Calame that including the 15-year-olds wouldn’t affect the data. How do I know? Because Calame made the Times’s number-crunchers recalculate to disprove him. He also subtracted the total number of women under 18 from the sample to see whether it would still result in a clear majority of American women “living without spouses” — which of course was the big bombshell that landed the piece on A1, a fact Calame takes pains to emphasize. Answer: nope. Without 15-to-17-year-olds, it’s only 48 percent. If all teenagers are excluded, it’s only 47.

I’m not going to quote the very end of the piece, where Roberts gives his “fake but accurate” apologia. It’s too sweet and deserves to be read in its original form. But here’s your exit question quotation: “It was discouraging to find yet another article with an unusual angle that didn’t seem to encounter many skeptical editors as it made its way to the front page.” Shazam.