“This letter … acts similar to a correction”

1097250162 s1qdaq78jk7 sackconst 01We have an end to the saga of GetReligion’s request for a correction on that April 9 feature story in The Washington Post, the one that ran with the headline “In Turkey, a Deep Suspicion of Missionaries — Priest’s Killing Shows Complex Ties of Islam to Nationalism in Officially Secular State.”

This is one of those good news-bad news situations. The Post has said “no” and has not formally admitted an error. But, as you will see, it has admitted that some people — or at least one — thinks that it made an error.

Here is the latest epistle from the foreign desk:

Hello Professor Mattingly,

Thank you for you patience regarding our lengthy review of your request for a correction on Karl Vick’s April 9 article, “In Turkey, a Deep Suspicion of Missionaries.” After speaking with Mr. Vick, we have decided not to publish a correction. The reason for this decision is based on a “Letter to the Editor” that was published on the Editorial Page on May 6, 2006. This letter, titled “This Battle Wasn’t Over Islam,” addresses the very same complaints that you have discussed with me and acts similar to a correction. … Thanks for your understanding and for contacting us regarding our coverage. If you have any other inquiries, please do not hesitate to get in touch with us again.

I must confess that I did not think to do an online search for a letter to the editor. It is also interesting that the copy desk did not recall the letter, either. I consider this a rather honorable way out of the argument, from the newspaper’s point of view.

As a reporter and columnist, I know that “corrections” carry more weight than letters. Still, it’s a good letter and makes the key point. Thank you, Kenneth Bernstein of Arlington, Va.

This Battle Wasn’t Over Islam

Saturday, May 6, 2006; A15

In his April 9 article, “In Turkey, a Deep Suspicion of Missionaries,” Karl Vick wrote, “The tension dates at least to the 13th century, when Christian Crusaders sacked what is today Istanbul.” This statement presents a very inaccurate picture.

There was a sack by Crusaders, but it had no direct connection with Islam.

The sack by the knights of the Fourth Crusade in 1204 was of the Byzantine city of Constantinople. The sack may well have been at the instigation of the Venetians who transported the knights, because Constantinople was a major commercial rival of Venice.

Islam enters the picture with the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks under Mehmed II on May 29, 1453. Some argue that the city had been irrevocably weakened by the sacking and plundering of the Fourth Crusade, but whatever destruction then occurred was that of Christian upon Christian. And while the city suffered during the siege before its 15th-century fall and in the first few days after the conquest, there is no element of this being an issue that could inflame attitudes toward Christian missionaries.

– Kenneth Bernstein
Arlington

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    As nice as Mr. Bernstein’s letter is, that’s not true that letters to the editor serve as corrections.

    That doesn’t stand to reason. Just think: you can have two letters to the editor with completely opposing views on the same editorial page on the same day. Do they both serve as corrections?

    Whatever.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Like I said, the newspaper did not own up to an error.

    But it printed material that showed it was wrong.

    Any theories, folks, as to why it took this approach?

  • Jeff

    I haven’t paid much attention to the manner in which corrections are handled online. I don’t see any comments associated with the article (a problem I just remedied), but when people several years from now find this story, how will they know there was an error? I’m assuming if there is a correction, it would be posted on the site, but a letter to the print version is not associated.

  • Michael

    My publication wrestles with these issues a lot. I think it’s a question of whether it is “wrong.” The reporter was reporting what a government official said. That we may disagree with the logic of a government official doesn’t mean that there was an actual error, but more a disagreement.

    The reporter could have analyzed what the government official was saying, or could just left it to the reader to determine the validity of the statement without the reporter truth-testing it and dipping into analysis.

    It seems the disagreement is with the Turkish government’s interpretation of history, not with the WP. There’s a context where the comments of the government official makes perfect sense, it just requires you take the argument a few more steps.

  • brian

    My guess is they took this route because there wasn’t really a “fact” that they could acknowledge they got wrong. They didn’t say that “what is today Istanbul” was a Muslim city at the time it was sacked, was it? Granted, they showed colossal historical ignorance, and tied things together in a nonsensical way, but do they typically apologize for things like that (they should!), or do they only correct indisputable “factual” errors?

    Did anyone see the CNN.com article from AP this weekend on the icon theft in Greece? I was most amused by this final sentence: “Thousands of worshippers visit the icon each year, most around August 15, an Orthodox Christian religious holiday in honor of the Virgin Mary.” Again, this is all correct, but the wording might surprise Catholics a bit…

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    Well, it is not a “Protestant holiday”.

  • Larry Rasczak

    “…and acts similar to a correction. . . . ”

    Kind of like the way asprin acts similar to intensive chemotherapy, a poorly tuned grade school orchestra acts similar to the London Symphony, and the teenage garage band that practices across the street act similar to Aerosmith.

    “The reporter could have analyzed what the government official was saying…”

    Not to snipe at Michael, but doesn’t that sort of fall under the heading of “doing what they pay you for” if you are a reporter?

    I mean if I go to a reporter and I sit that person down, buy them lunch, and explain how I was indeed the gunman on the grassy knoll, and I have the grass stained suit and the 50 year old carbine to prove it… and then that reporter goes and reports what I am saying, without bothering to check that I wasn’t even BORN in 1963, aren’t they sort of falling down on the job?

    I can understand a reporters reluctance to make their source look bad, but couldn’t you check the facts, and if it turns out the source said something wrong (like this), call back and politely request a clarification?

  • Michael

    I think it’s the reporter’s job to challenge what a source says. But I’m not sure it’s a reporter’s job to tell the Minister of Religion in Turkey that he doesn’t agree with his interpretation of history as it applies to Muslims. Especially since it was a minor point in a much larger story. It’s not like challenging the assertion that there were weapons of mass destruction or that Iraq was involved in 9/11, and government officials say those things all the time without the WP running a correction.

  • jay

    You made a good fight, tmatt, but they dismissed you and refused to admit their error. A letter to the editor in no way corrects a factual error by a newspaper. Not even close. Only a newspaper can correct its error. How many people actually saw the correction? You were in the midst of the discussion and didn’t know about it. And how many people who read the letters actually believe a letter writer to be in possession of good information. We all know only kooks write letters to the editors. (That’s a joke, y’all.) The fact stands uncorrected but not because you didn’t try. Another illustration, to my thinking, of arrogance on parade.

  • Stephen A.

    Cop out. Pure and simple. I wish they had at least gone with a “clarification” which would have corrected the error and allowed them to save face by not admitting it as an error.

    Just because someone in authority says it’s a “fact” and it’s reported dutifully that way, doesn’t mean the reporter’s duty isn’t to note it in the story by finding another person to add material clarifying the true historical facts.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    A correction is taken seriously–if prominent enough to be seen. But a Letter To The Editor is taken as an opinion piece and probably a spin job. In fact many newspapers disown the letters they publish with a disclaimer on the page and the letters are usually on the editorial (opinion) page. It was an arrogant cop-out. The media wants to admit as few mistakes as possible lest the aura of infallibility they promote be fractured.

  • http://www.postwatchblog.com Christopher Fotos

    You are far too charitable. This is not a correction. It does not “act similar to a correction” whatever semi-literate English that’s supposed to be. On those occasions when the Post publishes a correction, they publish it in the paper but also append it to the online version of the story. They haven’t done that here. The way these things work, more people are going to call up that old, incorrect story than the letter to the editor.

    Even when they begrudingly publish corrections–and they really, really hate to–in their minds they’re still spinning excuses. Last year it took weeks of haranguing from various sources to get the Post to acknowledge a story falsely described an individual as a “novice protestor;” i.e., showing up at an antiwar event for the first time. The correction they published online–the one that appeared for months before they finally noticed me blogging about it–accidentally left a revealing copy editor’s note. Here it is in full:

    A Sept. 23 Metro article about people coming to Washington for the Sept. 24 demonstration against the war in Iraq described ^ (don’t want to say “incorrectly” in this case) Patrice Cuddy, 56, of Olathe, Kan., as a novice protester. Cuddy had participated in three other large rallies against the war, two in Washington and one in New York.

    In this post at my blog I have an image of this amusing non-correction. They eventually removed “don’t want to say incorrectly.”

    The Post has little shame when it comes to corrections.

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