NYT Ombudsman: Times fumbled El Salvador abortion/murder story

About a month ago I noted an allegation that the New York Times Magazine had published an article that described a woman who was serving 30 years in a prison in El Salvador for getting an abortion. While abortion is illegal in El Salvador, the woman had actually been convicted of murder for strangling her newborn.

NYT Public Editor Byron Calame checked into it and found that, basically, the Times got it wrong–or, as he put it:

Accuracy and fairness were not pursued with the vigor Times readers have a right to expect.

I will let you read through the details for yourself. Three things I take away from it:

I. Calame’s account of how this error came about is useful, because it shows how very small errors can be introduced that accumulate and allow the Times to get a story wrong. The main problem here is that the article’s writer, Jack Hitt, heard that a particular report was “archived” and assumed he couldn’t get it. In fact Life Site News (which first noticed the error), Calame, and ultimately the Times editors managed to come up with it pretty easily and found it showed that the Climaco was rightly convicted of murder, not illegal abortion.

Hitt’s explanation is plausible, but the Times could easily have checked this out before the article ran (or at least before they began answering complaints.) Another explanation, of course, is that Hitt found some evidence that suggested a shocking penalty was being wrongly imposed on a poor girl, and figured the Times would rush to print it and accept his word that the document was unavailable. (I’ve no evidence of this–just noting the possibility.) But either way, the blogosphere fact-checked him.

II. Another problem with this story is the NYT’s freelancer talking with the murderer, Carmen Climaco, through an unpaid translator who consulted for a pro-choice group in El Salvador, which then used the Times article for its fundraising. While this wasn’t the main error in the story, it’s an interesting admission that sometimes helpful local sources have their own agenda. Something we “warbloggers” have been beating to death lately in a slightly different context.

III. But perhaps the biggest problem–one which Calame notes in full–is the arrogant refusal of Times brass to admit there might have been a problem with their reporting. They sent out a form response to people who wrote in about the article dismissing their concerns before they had finished their translation of the critical document.

But now they persist in the same belief even when confronted by Calame with the court record that showed they were wrong and the baby’s lungs were full of air.

Not wanting to admit you’re wrong is human nature, not liberal bias. But even at this late date and in spite of the evidence, the NYT editors seem resolved that dammit, that girl is in jail for an abortion, not for murder. And according to Calame they’re still not ready to correct the story.

At this point I would think all bloggers–large or small, pro-life or pro-choice–who are interested in accurate reporting ought to put some pressure on the NYT to explain this development.

P.S. I’ve been underwhelmed with Calame’s chaperoning of the Times, although his is admittedly a difficult job, especially since he doesn’t have any power except a column about what goes on inside. But he earned his money on this one.