One of the media’s tricks for spreading misinformation is to quote someone uncritically who is telling a lie. The story may be technically truthful, if the person really did say it. Nevertheless, if the lie is reported without any rebuttal or caution that it might not be true, the story gives the impression that the lie is true, particularly when the lie is woven into the broader narrative of the story. That’s dishonest.
Indeed, my definition of “lie” is to make any statement with the deliberate intention to cause the audience to believe something that the teller thinks is false. By that definition, Bob Kerrey and the New York Times lied about Scott Brown:
“If he’s running against 60 votes and wins, that is not good,” said Bob Kerrey, a former Democratic senator from Nebraska. “It says that in Massachusetts, they are willing to elect a guy who doesn’t believe in evolution just to keep the Democrats from having 60 votes.”
For the record, Scott Brown does believe in evolution:
“Scott Brown believes in evolution but in the case of Bob Kerrey he’s willing to make an exception.”
Here’s where the story gets interesting. The NYT revised its story to remove the portion of the quote that referred to evolution. But it did so without noting a correction.
What justification could the NYT have for airbrushing the story without a correction? If Kerrey didn’t really make the remark (the likelihood of this seems vanishingly small), then they’ve libeled Kerrey and they need to run a retraction. Much more likely, the NYT was being called on the lie and pulled it. Leaving out the evolution bit would have been the right thing to do in the first place, but they didn’t do that, and now it’s out there. Once they’d helped to spread misinformation, the NYT needed to issue a correction.
So why didn’t they? I can only see one explanation: Issuing a correction would draw attention to the fact that Democrats were lying about Scott Brown. Obviously, the NYT wanted Martha Coakley to win. That’s why they ran the lie in the first place, and if they ran the correction, the whole matter would have been a net positive for Brown. From the NYT’s perspective, that was unacceptable. Better just to leave the lie out there, and take the rip from people who hate the NYT already.
POSTSCRIPT: We can now look forward to Clark Hoyt’s column on the matter, in which Hoyt will defend the paper (as he nearly always does) writing that although they made an error in judgement, that error was not the result of bias.