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Only Correct
By Daniel Radosh

It has been said that journalism is the first rough draft of history. Not so at The New York Times, where journalism is often the first rough draft of more accurate journalism. The Times may not make more errors than other newspapers, but its obsession with correcting those errors is unique. That's why "Corrections," published virtually every day on Page A2, is The Times' funniest regular column—and I'm including Abe Rosenthal.

"Because of an editing error, an article on Wednesday about the Coast Guard's decision to close its base on Governors Island referred incorrectly...to Seaman Arizona Guastaferro, who expressed remorse over the shutdown. The seaman is a woman." Some people travel to Sweden for an editing error like that.

Other days The Times can be found casually redrawing geopolitical landscapes with a slip of the keystroke. A map "mislabled a country west of Hungary, between Austria and Croatia. It is Slovenia, not Slovakia." Meanwhile, "a group of countries that view Iran as a menace," which included Israel, "should have been characterized as regional, not Islamic." This is Hamas. Postpone that order for the party hats.

International affairs are The Times' forte, so you can imagine the troubles that arise when it comes to more uncertain turf. One article "referred incorrectly...to the source of a quotation used by President Clinton in [a] eulogy. He was paraphrasing Leon Russell, the pop musician, not Leon Redbone, the jazz musician, when he said 'I love you in a place that has no space and time.'"

Another story "misidentified the movie [Jon Huntsman] cited as his inspiration to go into plastics. It was The Graduate, not Mrs. Robinson." And I suspect that both singer Maxene Andrews and writer Kingsley Amis were glad they were too busy being dead to see the reversed subheadings for their obituaries. "The reference to 'a onetime radical' applied to the obituary of Mr. Amis; the one to a 'last role' in 'a Manhattan revue' was for Miss Andrews's."

Sometimes three-letters makes all the difference. "An article...omitted a word in quoting Rabbi Avi Weiss...at a demonstration outside the Al-Salaam mosque in Jersey City. He said, 'I am not here to condemn this place and this mosque." Perhaps one can sense hidden prejudices lurking behind this and other slightly off-base quotations. Former legislative aide Sherry Jeffe "said of [Pete] Wilson: 'He's been biding his time on this, knowing all along what he was going to do when the time was ripe. It's ripe. He's picked.' She did not say, 'He's pickled.'"

More distressingly, a review of the documentary Harlem Diary "quoted Nikki Matos, an 18-year-old mother, incorrectly. Speaking of her worries about her infant son, Ms. Matos says in the film, 'I gave birth to an endangered species'--not 'a dangerous species.'"

Another correction was necessitated when the The Times' famous stuffiness overwhelmed its commitment to objective reporting: "An essay...about Paris, past and present, mistranslated the phrase, C'est sympa d'etre celibataire. As used by the Eurofit Club, it means, 'It's fun to be single,' not celibate." On the other hand, nothing can explain the misreporting of Mary Matalin's description of Rush Limbaugh. "She said he was 'sui generis,' not, 'sweet, generous.'"

With this track record, The Times should be considered suspect as source of practical information as well. "The lottery report in some copies yesterday included incorrect Friday numbers..." Hope you didn't tear up that ticket. And speaking of tickets, "The concert is not free; admission is $12." Or if you're thinking of going to that play, the paper "gave the date of the opening performance incorrectly. It will be on Tuesday; it was not yesterday."

On the upside, the cost of the silver Pope medallion "will be $90, not $1,125." If you had more trouble than usual with the crossword puzzle, that's because the clue for 85 Down "should have read, 'Playhouses, in Madrid,' not 'Yellowish-pink color.'" And before you toss those birth control pills, "An article...about the Reality female condom misstated the annual pregnancy rate among users. It is 21 to 26 percent, not 2.8 percent." Hell, the Pope medallion is more effective.

Don't look to The Times for historical information either. A caption "incorrectly described a picture of [John B. Connally] and President John F. Kennedy. The car in which the two men were sitting was not the limousine in which Kennedy was assassinated, but a smaller car they used earlier that day. The caption also misstated Mr. Connally's location in the later motorcade. He sat in a jump seat between the front and rear seats of the limousine, not in its front seat." And President Kennedy's head did not go forward and to the right.

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but at The Times it's always worth 25 on Page A2. "A painting of two fish by Robert Rauschenberg...was reproduced sideways. The fish are horizontal, with their heads at the left." "The Caspar David Friedrich painting Walk at Dusk was reproduced in mirror image. The man's figure actually appears at the left." "An article...about the sale of fake Salvador Dali artworks...missated the given name of Miro, whose works in the same sale are said to be genuine. It is Joan, not Ernst." If you have one signed Ernst, it may not be genuine after all.

From the in-house ("...misstated the age of John F. Burns of The New York Times...He is 48") to the outer-limits ("It is E=mc2, not E=mc"), The Times version of the universe is simply different from everyone else's, at least until the matter is caught and corrected. Even the corrections get corrected: "The star is Joan Cusack, not John Cusack. A correction in this space on Sunday rendered both performers' names incorrectly." Even the excuses get corrected: "It resulted from computer malfunctions at The Times, not problems in transmission from The Associated Press."

It makes you wonder about the time the paper "rendered the epigraph to E.M. Forster's novel Howards End incorrectly. It was 'Only connect,' not 'Just connect." Perhaps The Times' epigraph should be "Only correct."

Originally appeared in The New York Press, Nov. 29, 1995