The New York Times and Its Editors' Notes

By Haws, Dick | Newspaper Research Journal, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

The New York Times and Its Editors' Notes


Haws, Dick, Newspaper Research Journal


Back in 1986 a disgruntled customer of a New York City Porsche-Audi dealer, Donald Schupak, hired a picket to carry a sign in front of the car dealer; the sign read, "Porsche-Audi Manhattan Does Not Honor Its Repair Warranties." The New York Times covered the dispute, reporting that Schupak had brought his Porsche in for repairs twice; they were covered by the warranty the first time, but not the second, which prompted Schupak to refuse to pay for the repairs, which left the car sitting in the shop - and led to the dispute and the picket. In the Times' story the only explanation from Porsche-Audi came from service director James Cantelmo, who said, "Basically, he's (Schupak) out in left field."

But it was through the subsequent Editors' Note, published 12 days later, that the Times put the dispute in clearer perspective and no doubt helped soothe the car dealer. In the Note, the Times explained, not only had the reporter been told about Schupak and left field, but the service director had also outlined the problem to the reporter - the driver had ripped up the Porsche's gears by shifting into reverse while going forward. And it had happened twice. The damage from the first misshift was covered by the warranty, but not the second. "In fairness," said the Times in its Note, the story "should have included Mr. Cantelmo's full reply."(1) That was the purpose of Editors' Notes when the innovation was launched by the Times back in 1983. They were "to amplify or rectify what editors feel are significant lapses of fairness, balance or perspective."(2)

Background of editors' notes

Longtime New York Times Executive Editor A. M. Rosenthal, now a Times columnist, recalled that the impetus for Notes came from a Times' story he found to be "unnecessarily harsh and cruel" while he was executive editor. "I thought - not for the first time - that there should be a way for the Times to express its own regret when it did something journalistically wrong or unbecoming or contrary to our standards."(3) So Editors' Notes began in 1983, and they've been going ever since, at an average of 33 per year.

Rosenthal remembered that the early reaction to Notes from Times' editors was not one of enthusiasm. "My decision (to launch Notes) rather startled the other editors," Rosenthal wrote. "... (Times' editors) wanted to talk it over and set up a committee or something to talk about it. I said I had thought about it carefully and that it was time to do it - in the paper the next day. I called the publisher, Punch Sulzberger, told him that in the next day's paper, there would be a present for him. When I told him what it was, he agreed it was indeed a present."(4)

Editors' Notes, as defined by the New York Times, aren't the same as corrections, which are also published by the Times and almost every other newspaper in the country. Corrections focus on factual, objective kinds of mistakes: The wrong date, the wrong name, the wrong address. But Editors' Notes are more; Rosenthal says they are "an acknowledgment of deeper error (than a correction) on the part of the Times."(5) To be sure, almost every newspaper in the country has at some time or other published something similar to a Times' Note - it might have been through an ombudsman column where the newspaper acknowledged its coverage of the governor was unbalanced, or through an editor's column where the newspaper criticized its sensational coverage of a murder. But the New York Times, through its Notes, stands alone as having the most systematic and established method for attempting to right its more substantive wrongs.(6)

Discussion

For researchers, Editors' Notes in the New York Times are important to examine because they provide a rare window into what America's newspaper-of-record believes have been its major blunders.

For this study, the first 15 years of the Editors' Notes were reviewed, covering the period April 21, 1983, through April 21, 1998, in which 501 Notes were published. …

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