Thursday, May 04, 2006

Opaque transparency

In the good, old days, imperious publishers and unrepentant editors seldom explained their editorial judgments and rarely retracted mistakes.

Today, the media are falling all over themselves to provide unprecedented transparency to the sausage-making process otherwise known as reporting the news.

In the interests of accountability, most newspapers are giving ever more precious space to corrections, clarifications, editor’s notes, ombudspersons, reader advocates, public editors and the like. This is a good thing, when it works as intended.

But the transparency proffered by the New York Times sometimes is so opaque that you wonder why the sausage-makers bother at all.

Consider the case of the fascinating page-one story on April 25 that discussed a proposal by Airbus to create standing-room “seats” for air travelers as a means of boosting revenues.

It was a good story. Everyone was talking about it. But there was a problem with the 1,512-word yarn. It wasn’t exactly true.

According to a one-paragraph correction that ran on page two of the Times on May 2, Airbus “researched the idea in 2003” and “has since abandoned it.” The article was written anyway, because the questions posed to Airbus in reporting the story “were imprecise,” the Times imprecisely explained.

Two days later, the Times was moved to correct the correction in an editor’s note. The earlier correction, said the NYT, “should have acknowledged that if The Times had correctly understood the history of the proposal, the article would have qualified it, and [the story] would not have appeared on Page A1.”

Sorry, but this makes no sense. If the reporting had been more “precise” and the Times determined there was no active proposal for standing “seats,” would there have been a story at all? I think not.

Absent the standing “seat” angle, the balance of the story prosaically discussed the indefatigable, but not particularly newsworthy, efforts of airlines to cram more seats into their cabins.

It was not enough to say the article was unworthy of page one. In light of what the NYT has told us, the story really wasn’t fit to print at all. The Times should have said so.

It goes a long way toward enhancing the credibility of the media when a publication or broadcast comes clean on an oversight or error. But good intentions are perverted when transparency is obscured by half-truths and doubletalk.

If the Times wanted to play it straight with its readers, it would have admitted forthrightly that the premise of this story didn’t fly.