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Making it Up:

The New York Times "clarifies" a quote:

Editors' Note An earlier version of this article cited two sources who were said to have been briefed on a conversation in which John J. Mack, chief executive of Morgan Stanley, had told Vikrim S. Pandit, Citigroup's chief executive, that "we need a merger partner or we're not going to make it." On Thursday, Morgan Stanley vigorously denied that Mr. Mack had made the comment, as did Citigroup, which had declined to comment on Wednesday.

The Times's two sources have since clarified their comments, saying that because they were not present during the discussions, they could not confirm that Mr. Mack had in fact made the statement. The Times should have asked Morgan Stanley for comment and should not have used the quotation without doing more to verify the sources' version of events.

This is almost as bad as when the Times quoted from a parody website and treated it as authentic.

asdfasdf (mail):
Anyone who regularly reads the Times should not be surprised by this error. How else can the Times sell newspapers if they can't incite panic and indignation over "Wall Street greed" amongst its readers?
9.18.2008 6:00pm
wfjag:

This is almost as bad as when the Times quoted from a parody website and treated it as authentic.


You're sure this is not intentional? The Onion may soon have a larger readership than the NYT. Perhaps it's just a gradual format change so that the NYT can compete head-up with The Onion.
9.18.2008 6:03pm
Steve:
Wow!
9.18.2008 6:05pm
Bruce:
Getting quotes from people not present but briefed on meetings is often the only way to find out what happened at various meetings. It's a widely used and defensible journalistic method. Most of the Cheney book that was highlighted on the VC a few days ago is sourced the same way. But obviously you need to be appropriately skeptical of your sources and double-check them as much as possible.
9.18.2008 6:08pm
Sam H (mail):
It surprises me that anyone posting here assumes that the NYT makes any attempt at all to be correct.
9.18.2008 6:16pm
Justin (mail):
Who says its an error? That the Times can't back up their story - particularly after their sources were leaned upon by Morgan Stanely's leadership - doesn't mean the story is false. They should have done the things they said they done, but I'm betting what was claimed to have been said WAS said.
9.18.2008 6:17pm
RSF677:
The quote is probably in error, because John Mack wouldn't say it to a potential merger partner. The sentiment may be true, but that's a different story. I think John Mack is probably smart enough to know that trying to sell Morgan Stanley to Citi (or some other firm) by saying that bankruptcy awaits if someone doesn't purchase them will probably not result in a very good price for the shares. That combined with blanket denials is probably reason enough to think it is crap.
9.18.2008 6:21pm
Federal Dog:
"That combined with blanket denials is probably reason enough to think it is crap."


The fact that was reported in the New York Times is certainly reason enough to think it is crap.
9.18.2008 6:29pm
hawkins:
Seems like a clarification to me. There is nothing inconsistent - the original story said they had been "briefed" on a conversation that occurred. The clarification stated that they had not actually been present at the meeting. These are entirely consistent with one another, no?

It probably was stupid to use the sources without further investigation, though.
9.18.2008 6:33pm
one of many:
Getting quotes from people not present but briefed on meetings is often the only way to find out what happened at various meetings. It's a widely used and defensible journalistic method.

Has journalism sunk so far? When you quote someone you are attributing the words quoted as their exact words, and to rely on someone who not only didn't say them but didn't even hear them is a widely used journalistic practice? Wow no wonder people don't trust the press. Professional liars (lawyers) who take that kind of liberty with quotes can be sanctioned for it.
9.18.2008 6:35pm
hawkins:

Has journalism sunk so far? When you quote someone you are attributing the words quoted as their exact words, and to rely on someone who not only didn't say them but didn't even hear them is a widely used journalistic practice? Wow no wonder people don't trust the press. Professional liars (lawyers) who take that kind of liberty with quotes can be sanctioned for it.


Amazing. No sources should ever be used unless they have first hand knowledge of a conversation? Journalistic standards are not as stringent as rule governing the admissibility of evidence. Of course most people put more faith in the word of lawyer's in official documents than in what they read in the paper.
9.18.2008 6:39pm
Calderon:
It's almost as bad as mistakenly claiming a company filed for Chapter 11 (see United Airlines, a few weeks ago), since the effect on stock price and perception of the companies likely is similar.
9.18.2008 6:40pm
neurodoc:
This is almost as bad as when the Times quoted from a parody website and treated it as authentic.
You're kidding about the "almost as bad as," right? This NYT report is something akin to yelling "Fire" in a crowded theatre inasmuch as it too could cause panic and serious injuries, especially given the spookiness of financial markets right now. Falling for that hoax website may have been a more egregious mistake on the NYT's part, but this one, if indeed a mistake, is a far more consequential one.
9.18.2008 6:42pm
r78:
Everybody knows that the NYT is unreliable and that the only honest and unbiased source of news is Bill O'Reilly.
9.18.2008 6:42pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
Amazing. No sources should ever be used unless they have first hand knowledge of a conversation?
Uh, yes? Is this a trick question? You shouldn't quote people based on the statements of people who didn't hear them.

I mean "briefed on the conversation"? Why not write, "Someone who wasn't present said that someone told him that Mack had said X"? Other than that such a formulation would expose how ludicrous that is, I mean.
9.18.2008 6:50pm
ejo:
the sources weren't present. did the "journalist" inquire as to how they knew, having not been present, that the statement was made? did the "journalist" attempt to obtain verification re the actual sources (ie. actually talk to the briefers if the sources actually quoted were the briefees?). I suspect those that don't find this a little hinky must be professional journalists themselves.
9.18.2008 6:50pm
hawkins:
A and B have a conversation. A tells the source what was said. The source informs the journalist. Such sources are inadequate to use?
9.18.2008 6:56pm
Sarcastro (www):
This proves to me that the NYT and by extension all media I don't like as well as all liberals who read it are always lying.

And of course conservative papers' journalistic standards are always too awesome to question.
9.18.2008 7:01pm
Bored Lawyer:

Amazing. No sources should ever be used unless they have first hand knowledge of a conversation?
Uh, yes? Is this a trick question? You shouldn't quote people based on the statements of people who didn't hear them.

I mean "briefed on the conversation"? Why not write, "Someone who wasn't present said that someone told him that Mack had said X"? Other than that such a formulation would expose how ludicrous that is, I mean


This reminds me of Brandeis's famous quip that sunlight is the best disinfectant. I don't have a problem with quoting a source who was merely briefed about a conversation -- SO LONG AS THAT IS DISCLOSED. But when you write that "our sources say that John Doe stated XYZ," that means to the average person that these sources actually heard the words XYZ come out of John Doe's mouth.


Of course most people put more faith in the word of lawyer's in official documents than in what they read in the paper


Yes, if a lawyer who is from a reputable firm makes a direct representation of fact (without weasel words) in a Court document, I think that is far more reliable than what you read in the NY Times.
9.18.2008 7:07pm
Dave N (mail):
Of course, in the law, we do not allow witnesses to play telephone. The law calls it "hearsay" and it is generally inadmissible.
9.18.2008 7:10pm
Sarcastro (www):
Dave N reality should totally be held to the standards of a courtroom! No more hearsay, or assuming facts not in evidence! And only relevant things, please!

And Daubert for Everything!
9.18.2008 7:12pm
Adam J:
David M. Nieporent - I don't see why it's that clear- we don't hold newspapers up to legal standards of hearsay. They should be allowed to have more flexible methods of establishing credibility then Courts do. However, in this case it sounds like the writer might be pawning off office gossip as an official "briefing".
9.18.2008 7:22pm
jgshapiro (mail):

Who says its an error? That the Times can't back up their story - particularly after their sources were leaned upon by Morgan Stanely's leadership - doesn't mean the story is false. They should have done the things they said they done, but I'm betting what was claimed to have been said WAS said.

Is this comment meant in parody?

I guess any news medium can run any story without any sources if they just KNOW it is true. I mean they can just FEEL it's truthiness -- can't you? Why would that be an error?

What if Fox News ran a story claiming Barack Obama had agreed with Louis Farrakhan to appoint Farrakhan as White House Chief of Staff if Obama wins the election? Of course, there is no evidence of any agreement that we know of, but that doesn't mean that this story is in error. I bet the reason that both sides deny an agreement re Farrakhan is because they think Obama would lose the election if either one admitted such an agreement. The fact that there is no affirmative proof of an agreement and there are denials on both sides of an agreement establishes nothing!
9.18.2008 7:27pm
Bill Kilgore:
I don't think anyone is arguing a paper can't use hearsay when it may be the only way of presenting certain information. The point is that when a paper uses hearsay they should acknowledge it and not list the alleged statement as a quote.

Surely, people who recognize the importance of nuance can handle the distinction.

I'll let the people who study journalism debate the appropriateness of quoting someone without giving said person an opportunity to respond to the quote. It sure seems pathetic and dishonest but since the people who run the Times are much, much smarter than me, I'm sure they have a good reason for the practice.
9.18.2008 7:36pm
Adam J:
jgshapiro - "I guess any news medium can run any story without any sources if they just KNOW it is true." Um... there were two sources, maybe you should read the original post &article before you comment. The issue is the story's credibility when the two sources didn't hear the words in question directly. Of course, maybe its not surprising you're confused when Zywicki himself mischaracterizes what happened under the title "Making it Up". You'd think he'd strive for accurate journalism when criticizing someone elses journalism, but I guess not.
9.18.2008 7:41pm
Adam J:
Bill Kilgore- The article didn't represent it as a quote, and it did acknowledge that it was hearsay. Below is the text from the article, with the part acknowledging that it was hearsay in bold.

But as the fear that gripped markets after Lehman Brothers failed also enveloped the firm, John J. Mack, Morgan Stanley's chief executive, spoke Tuesday evening with Citigroup's chief executive, Vikram S. Pandit, about a possible combination, according to people briefed on the talks.
9.18.2008 7:46pm
nicestrategy (mail):
The Times running a correction is newsworthy? This is evidence of the great NYT conspiracy?

As much of a molehill as this is, it is still a molehill and we should, in general, hold the media to a high standard. We should also hold politicians to a high standard, but spin and falsehood are accepted as part of the game. "Thanks but no thanks" is a shameless lie. I look forward to the guardians of truth demanding corrections from all quarters.
9.18.2008 9:02pm
MartyA:
Don't know _The New York Times_. Is it anything like _The Onion_?
9.18.2008 9:24pm
Orson Buggeigh:
"Don't know _The New York Times_. Is it anything like _The Onion_?" - Marty A.

You're correct, Marty, except some of us think _The Onion_ is funner because it has better writers. All of this reinforces the suggestion made a few weeks back that one might get better journalism out of the tabloids, especially _The National Enquirer_ than out of the the NYT. That comment, IIRC, followed the lack of interest in the Edwards escapade by the NYT and other US media, even after the _Times_ (the real one, in London) picked up the story.
9.18.2008 9:44pm
Visitor Again:
This is almost as bad as when the Times quoted from a parody website and treated it as authentic.

Or when a former federal judge who happens to contribute to this blog mistook a hoax e-mail about outrageous tort suits to be real. Then corrected himself and apologized on this blog.
9.18.2008 10:18pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):
This mistake--about accurately describing the source--is one taught, I believe, in beginning journo. Then there are the layers of fact-checkers and hard-eyed editors.
Sometimes the NYT gives every evidence of being crooked. Other times ignorant. In this case, incompetent.
9.18.2008 10:38pm
Bruce:
I don't have the print story in front of me, but it sounds from the clarification as though the original story DID attribute the quote to two people briefed on the meeting. So all this stuff about "disclosure" and "describing the source" is completely missing the point. Apparently what's happened is that the NYT now feels it didn't do enough to confirm those accounts.

Sorry to interrupt the schadenfreude.
9.18.2008 11:28pm
David Warner:
Justin,

Ever consider that the`world might get tired of being shoehorned into your banal worldview?
9.18.2008 11:41pm
Harry Eagar (mail):
'Has journalism sunk so far?'

I dunno. Have any of you litigators ever put someone on the stand and had him deny what he said to you in the office, or in depositions?

It should be clear enough by now that the guys running Wall Street aren't too swift in the brains department, so it is entirely conceivable that Mack said something that dumb, and even more conceivable that when it reached print, everybody decided to shoot the messenger.

Considering the importance of this statement, if it is true, then no editor would allow it to be published without grilling the reporter about how he knows it -- even if, as often happens, the paper doesn't tell its readers why it thinks it knows what it says it knows.

How many times during my 40 years of newspapering have people denied saying what I heard them say after they saw it in print? Many.
9.19.2008 12:30am
Justin (mail):
Does David Warner just exist to make personal attacks against me, or does he post actual thoughts of his own as well?
9.19.2008 12:34am
BGates:
The article didn't represent it as a quote
Represent what as a quote? The words in between the quotation marks?
9.19.2008 1:11am
MnZ:

The Times running a correction is newsworthy?


Well, there was that little issue of the almost financial meltdown today. Although I would admit, tens of billions of dollars are nothing to big government types.
9.19.2008 1:53am
Hoosier:
"Adam J:
jgshapiro - "I guess any news medium can run any story without any sources if they just KNOW it is true." Um... there were two sources"

Actually, there weren't. ["The Times's two sources have since clarified their comments, saying that because they were not present during the discussions, they could not confirm that Mr. Mack had in fact made the statement. "]

Which is a problem, isn't it? Placing the "quote" in quotes sure does seem to be "making it up." Or at least *I* would think so, were I the one quoted as saying something that I never said.
9.19.2008 7:33am
Adam J:
BGates- there are no quotes in the original article dude- the quotes are in the correction.
9.19.2008 10:26am
wfjag:

The Times's two sources have since clarified their comments, saying that because they were not present during the discussions, they could not confirm that Mr. Mack had in fact made the statement.

I think I understand the NYT's journalistic standards now. It's the "2 weren't there anonymous source" rule. If you can find 2 people who won't agree to be named as sources, but who tell you they weren't there, but they believe something was said or occurred outside their presence, then that's enough time wasted on confirmation of facts. If 2 McCain staffers from the 2000 campaign say that he had an affair with a lobbyist, although they saw or heard nothing that indicated that, that's good enough for a front page story. If a couple of people who weren't there decide that Mack must have, or at least should have, said that Morgan Stanley must have a merger partner or go broke -- further evidence that the economy is crashing so that Dems should be elected -- then that's enough time wasted on checking facts.

And, you wonder why many people watch Jon Stewart for their "news"? (Hint: At least he's clever.")
9.19.2008 11:20am