Truth is the high-value currency of journalism.
So what in the world was the L.A. Times thinking last week when it tried to cover up when a reader wondered why an error hadn't been corrected?
The wraparound cover of the May 2 sports section advanced that night's Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Manny Pacquiao boxing match. It included a large illustration that was supposed to depict the two fighters. But instead of Mayweather, the graphic featured another boxer, Tim Bradley.
Incredibly, this was the second time this year that The Times has confused the two. On Saturday, Feb. 21, a sports section news story about the upcoming bout between Mayweather and Pacquiao included a photo of a boxer identified as Mayweather. But it wasn't Mayweather, it was Bradley.
Per industry standard, a correction ran the next day in the newspaper.
Last week, six days after that mistake was repeated in the cover graphic, the paper had yet to acknowledge the error. Not only had staffers brought the mistake to the attention of the suits, readers did as well. I waited until Friday before writing to Deirdre Edgar, the paper's reader representative, wondering why no correction had been made.
According to The Times, Edgar has "the privilege of hearing directly from readers about questions of accuracy and fairness in Times coverage." She is a member of the Organization of News Ombudsmen.
Its mission is to protect and enhance the quality of journalism "by encouraging respectful and truthful discourse about journalism's practices and purposes." Newspaper ombudsmen are obliged, the organization says, to promote transparency within their news organizations, and to act as an independent agent "in the best interests of news consumers."
Edgar responded to my inquiry with the explanation that the illustration correction was planned for the next day's paper. "It is being published on Saturday," Edgar emailed, "to reach the same readers who would have seen the illustration last Saturday."
When I worked at The Times, mistakes made in the Sunday paper were corrected as soon as they were discovered, and also in the following Sunday edition because some people subscribed only on that day. Maybe these days print readers also may subscribe only on Saturday. It makes sense to publish a correction for them, as well as for daily readers.
Which is what The Times generally does.
Yesterday, Saturday, The Times published an obituary of Joanne Carson with an error. Today, Sunday, it was corrected in the print edition. The paper didn't wait a week, as it did for the Mayweather correction, "to reach the same readers who would have seen [it] last Saturday"; it corrected it as soon as it was discovered.
(As of this writing, The Times' digital corrections are only current through May 8, so there is no link to corrections published yesterday or today.)
On May 3, last Sunday, an error was made in an obituary about Fanchon Blake. The next day, Monday, that correction appeared in the paper, and was repeated in today's paper for the Sunday-only readers.
So Edgar's explanation to me for the delay was implausible, and contrary to Times' policy.
As a journalist, I've made at least my share of mistakes. No one's perfect, and deadline journalism is particularly fraught; you must get it fast, and get it right. Committing an error once is a mistake; twice is jaw-dropping ineptitude. And covering it up is Nixonian. It's unprofessional and cheapens the core value gatherers and purveyors of news are supposed to revere and uphold at all costs.
I don't know if Edgar made up the Tom "I-did-not-have-sex-with-that-football" Bradyesque excuse on her own, or had help. Even though I know The Times was aware of the error long before I mentioned it, all she had to say to me was, "We screwed up. We're publishing the correction tomorrow."
Instead, she spun it, and if she and Times managers are comfortable with that, perhaps they should flack for politicians, entertainers or corporations, for whom that kind of CYA confection is standard operating procedure. It has no place in journalism.