The case of the New York Times’ terror error

As the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, it isn’t hard to recall the politically fraught case of the 20-year-old bearded kid captured by US soldiers in Afghanistan in late 2001. But think the media got the whole story right on the so-called American Taliban?

Think again: Nearly a decade later, a rather extraordinary meltdown occurred during a recent San Francisco radio show focused on the case of John Walker Lindh. It happened thanks to 14 erroneous words printed in the New York Times in July 2002. My MediaBugs partner Scott Rosenberg and I just published a long piece in The Atlantic that traces the tale and explains its profound implications for news accuracy in the digital age. Here’s how it begins:

***

It is hard to describe the interview that took place on KQED’s Forum show on May 25, 2011, as anything other than a train wreck.

Osama bin Laden was dead, and Frank Lindh — father of John Walker Lindh, the “American Taliban” — had been invited on to discuss a New York Times op-ed piece he’d just published about his son’s 20-year prison sentence. The moment host Dave Iverson completed his introduction about the politically and emotionally charged case, Lindh cut in: “Can I add a really important correction to what you just said?”

Iverson had just described John Walker Lindh’s 2002 guilty plea as “one count of providing services to a terrorist organization.” That, Frank Lindh said, was simply wrong.

Yes, his son had pled guilty to providing services to the Taliban, in whose army he had enlisted. Doing so was a crime because the Taliban government was under U.S. economic sanctions for harboring Al Qaeda. But the Taliban was not (and has never been) classified by the U.S. government as a terrorist organization itself.

This distinction might seem picayune. But it cut to the heart of the disagreement between Americans who have viewed John Walker Lindh as a traitor and a terrorist and those, like his father, who believe he was a fervent Muslim who never intended to take up arms against his own country.

That morning, the clash over this one fact set host and guest on a collision course for the remainder of the 30-minute interview. The next day, KQED ran a half-hour Forum segment apologizing for the mess and picking over its own mistakes.

KQED’s on-air fiasco didn’t happen randomly or spontaneously. The collision was set in motion nine years before by 14 erroneous words in the New York Times.

This is the story of how that error was made, why it mattered, why it hasn’t been properly corrected to this day — and what lessons it offers about how newsroom traditions of verification and correction must evolve in the digital age.

***

Read the whole thing here in The Atlantic. We reexamined the complicated Lindh case and conducted interviews with Frank Lindh, reporters and editors at the New York Times and KQED, and experts on media accuracy to get to the bottom of what turned out to be a fascinating case study.

Bonus link: Apparently the New York Times is not the only major news outlet with a Lindh error lurking in its digital archive.

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