Was the New York Times Easter error no big deal?

Was the New York Times Easter error no big deal? April 3, 2013

The New York Times has been taking quite a bit of heat for its shockingly erroneous understanding of Christianity. Earlier this week, it published a brief story about Pope Francis’ Easter message and went on to say that “Easter is the celebration of the resurrection into heaven of Jesus, three days after he was crucified, the premise for the Christian belief in an everlasting life.”

Now, there are many things wrong with that line, as my kindergartner could tell you.

I thought my write-up of the piece was pretty mild. But reader Joshua wrote:

Ok, I understand the error and the argument of how egregious the difference in meanings are, but … call me crazy, I don’t understand the effusive, scornful finger-pointing hoopla over it. It’s not a religious newspaper, and errors happen.

And reader Jeffrey Weiss, well known as a religion-news beat professional, wrote:

Even Homer nods, as the saying goes, and even LeBron tosses the occasional airball. I’d not be quite so fast to dump the NYT for what is a bonehead mistake. For those of you of a particular religious tilt: It’s a human institution and all such are inevitably fallen, yes? Even in these reduced times, I’d put the Times record of accuracy up against most of the rest of the world. Surely tens of thousands of facts a day. In this case, the story showed up on a holiday, of course, where the editing crew is likely skeletal. People who really know Easter probably weren’t working. That’s not an excuse, of course. It’s a major unforced error.

Because I’m a human who errs with alarming frequency, I’m inclined to be understanding and I sure do love how Weiss puts the best construction on the folks working the Easter shift at the Times. And yet I am not sure I agree. Anyone who has gone through a New York Times editing process knows that there really are layers and layers of fact-checking and it boggles the mind that the error could have been made by a Vatican reporter, much less made it through that editing process on the way to press.

The Canadian scribe and human-rights activist Mark Steyn wondered — as relates to the correction and the initial mistake — “How could any expensively credentialed J-school grad type those words?“:

Where I think Michael [Walsh] understates the case is when he says that it reveals the Times as know-nothings to 1.2 billion Catholics. Leaving aside the massed ranks of Anglicans, Methodists et al, it exposes the Times to believers and non-believers alike as culturally ignorant. The Bible underpins a big chunk of western art, music, and literature, and not to know its basic concepts is to condemn yourself to bobbing around in the shallows.

He goes on to give an example (my mind immediately thought “in the shallows” an apt way to describe a recent New York Times review of a Christian memoir) and adds:

Not to know any of this stuff, to be as tone-deaf to it as that Times correction, is to be entirely unmoored from your cultural inheritance – regardless of one’s “faith tradition” (as Al Gore would put it). I contributed a couple of arts pieces to the Times years ago, so I know a bit about the extraordinary layers of editors between the author and the page, and it’s remarkable that not one person up the chain raised an eyebrow over “resurrection into heaven” before it hit the streets. Judging from leftie reaction to the “correction”, to the hyper-secularists, ignorance of the peripheral tenets of a minor cult is a badge of honor. In reality, America’s supposed “newspaper of record” has just announced itself to the world as civilizationally illiterate.

It’s difficult to take the Times‘ copious critiques of Catholicism and religion in general seriously when it is as illiterate as this on the most fundamental of Christian doctrines. Defenses of this and the many similar mistakes we’ve seen in recent years ring more than a bit hollow. And yet, as Weiss notes, mistakes happen.

What do you think? No big deal? Or a foretaste of the feast of ignorance to come?*

*This is an allusion to a Christian phrase.

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  • Annie

    Definitely a big deal in my book, but then I have little to no respect for the NYTimes. The frustrating thing is that it’s obvious that this is not their first mistake, nor will it be their last. Yet their followers will continue to follow, just like lemmings, with little regard to facts.

  • Cathy G

    I’d be the last person to defend an error made by the NYT about something as basic as the Easter story. But their excellent coverage of the Catholic sexual abuse scandal and the church culture that supported it is in no way diminished by the Easter flub. This is likewise true of its reportage of people who call themselves religious and then proceed to violate every tenet that their faith calls sacred.

    • Mr. X

      I’m not so sure TBH. I mean, the meaning of Easter is a pretty easy thing to get right, and if the NYT can get that wrong, why should I trust anything else it writes? Who’s to say that major unforced errors don’t also slip through the net in other areas — such as, for example, the sex abuse scandal?

  • Martha

    In itself, it’s a small error. But if they can get a basic fact like this wrong (and be shown to be wrong) when dealing with something I and you know about, that does immediately make me wonder what other basic facts are they getting wrong when reporting on stories that I and you don’t know about?

    Are they getting, say, economic facts wrong? Political facts? Coverage of out there foreign? Would the “New York Times” be excused for, let us imagine, getting the name of the Prime Minister of Great Britain wrong on the grounds that it was a busy public holiday and it was only shift-workers keeping the place open, not the proper reporters and editors?

  • Eidolon

    I think it’s quite egregious because I would argue that the statement is still wrong, even with the correction. Belief in the afterlife existed among the Jews before Jesus, and he himself criticized people for not believing in it, as I mentioned in my comment at the earlier post.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Martha’s point is one I have thought time and again as I have read error, after ignorance, after stupidity about religion or Christianity, or the Catholic Faith in the Times and its minor league the Boston Globe.
    Why does this incompetent, biased newspaper have the prestige so many errneously grant it???
    However, this groveling before an incompetent ,but very powerful ,Times is nothing new. Back in the Stalin and early Soviet Communist era, the leading foreign correspondent for the Times–someone by the name, I believe, of Duranty whitewashed and papered over the murder of millions in the Soviet Union .It was even later established that he knew what was really happening there, but portrayed the new Soviet era as virtually heaven on earth. The rest of the media fell for it because it came from the great and prestigious Times. (which won major awards for its coverage of the wonderful, new workers’ paradise.)

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    A follow up: The biased pro-Soviet writer’s name was Walter Duranty. He was given a Pulitzer Prize for his work. The most famous words he wrote were in defense of Stalin’s bloody purges: “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.” There is a lot about him and the Times if you Google: “Walter Duranty, NY Times reporter.” There is also a book by J.P. Taylor published in 1990 titled “Stalin’s Apologist: The NY Times Man In Moscow.”
    I couldn’t read all the stuff available, but from what I read, Duranty is apparently still listed as a Pulitzer hero, his award has never been revoked, and the Times continues to treat his lies and fraud as legitimate news coverage.

  • FW Ken

    I’m having a hard time getting worked up about this. In the first place, the NYT has been truly anti-Catholic tro many times for me to get upset over a stupid mistake like this. Sure, they despise Christianity in general and the Catholic Church in particular. So what else is new?

    Anyway, if this is the worst thing we have to talk about, its a pretty good day. (that is: put some perspective on)

    • Martha

      Well, I’m not worked up about it, but as I said – I have to take their word for it that (say) Representative Robert “Robbie” Robertson III (Republican, New Little Bigville) is very strongly opposed to the Tomato (Regulation Of Sizes And Ripeness )Act, the controversial agricultural reform package being debated right this minute in the august halls of government which, if passed, will revolutionise market gardening as we know it.

      Now, Rep. Robertson may have very good reason to be outraged by his appearance in the “New York Times” as they completely misrepresented his nuanced position on salad vegetables and fruits, but I don’t know about it because I don’t know the man or the sky over him and I’m only going by what I read in the paper.

      And if the paper gets a basic fact about the theology of the major religious denomination in its own country wrong – what is it getting wrong when it tells its readers about Pakistan or Ireland or Vanuatu?

      • Martha

        We’re not asking them to define the Hypostatic Union or debate the merits of the “filioque”; it’s “Why is Easter a major Christian holy day?” and “What is the Resurrection?”

  • When I took a test to get into Medical school, one of the questions was who composed the Brandenburg concertos. No, Bach does not have anything to do with medicine, but the idea was that a doctor should be well rounded in general knowledge, not just science, because we are not pure “scientists” but work with actual human beings.
    General knowledge of trivia don’t make one more sensitive, but knowing why these facts are important to one’s patients (or one’s readers) is part of being a competent professional.

  • Thinkling

    There certainly was a good deal of heat in addition to the light shed by this mishap, mostly in the form of schadenfreude in seeing the big bad anticatholic NYT taken down a notch.

    That said, the issue with cultural literacy is still quite stunning. A hundred years ago >90% of middle school students of all faith stripes would know this distinction, the cultural heritage owes so much to the Bible regardless of one’s profession to it. The 500 pound irony here is that the NYT is supposed to be the go to paper of the cultured and erudite, as opposed to the great unwashed masses in (so called) flyover country. Yet here the paper is showing itself to be brutally ignorant of our cultural heritage. Who are the rubes now?

    Yes this is no catastrophe. But it does expose the huge lie about the Times (and presumably many of its readers) being cultured.

    • asshur

      There has always been a problem of defining “cultured”.
      Even by the depressing current standards in high school education here in Spain -compared with my parents’ or even mine- every single spaniard which moves to the US to finish high school or enter college, tells the same story: The level of general culture there is even more depressing. And AFAIK most other europeans have the same feeling

      Sooner or later the downgrading of the average education sinks the level of the upper 10% -the NYT public & staff, it’s supposed- if we assume a normal distribution.
      If you add to this that European, Dead, White Male culture is taboo at most campuses, s a few years since; I’d say the NYT flop is simply a too obvious sign of the general decline

      • Suburbanbanshee

        No, I’d say “the level of the upper 10%” is actually really bad nowadays, whereas most normal US children have parents that watch their schooling more closely than the easily impressed parents of “the upper 10%.” It’s “the level of the upper 10%” that’s dragging down everybody else, because teachers come from universities staffed or influenced by “the upper 10%.”

  • Suburbanbanshee

    Anyway, the point is that, these days, most American people with bad grades in normal schools still know a fair amount about various religions and about US civics, whereas most of “the upper 10%” days are ignoramuses on these subjects.

  • Martha

    I’m sorry, to disagree with you, Jeffrey, but would you be willing to put up an apologia for:

    “Even in these reduced times, I’d put the Times record of accuracy up against most of the rest of the world. Surely tens of thousands of facts a day. In this case, the story showed up on a holiday, of course, where the editing crew is likely skeletal. People who really know who the President of the United States is probably weren’t working. That’s not an excuse, of course. It’s a major unforced error.”

    Would you be willing to accept that as a defence from an overseas newspaper of the calibre of “The Times”, “Le Monde”, “Die Welt” or even “The Munster Express ” (new edition published every Thursday)?

  • Jeffrey Weiss

    I suggest that the levels of editing that an art piece gets, one that I betcha was written some days before it ran, is significantly different from the attention that a daily news story will get on a holiday. That’s *journalism* 101. And sorry, knowing who the president of the United States is would not be remotely in the same category as being able to generate a one-sentence explanation of Easter. Not saying the latter is brain surgery, but it’s not nothing. This episode, I think, is a small datum about why having specialty reporters — and editors — is important.

    • Martha

      Thanks for the clarification, Jeffrey – sincerely, it is so interesting to find out all these little inside details as to how the sausage is made, so to speak.

      So an article covering a speech by the head of a religious denomination is an art piece, not a news piece. Gotcha. What about an article covering a speech by a politician? Is that real news or only art as well?

    • Mr. X

      “And sorry, knowing who the president of the United States is would not be remotely in the same category as being able to generate a one-sentence explanation of Easter. Not saying the latter is brain surgery, but it’s not nothing.”

      Oh, tosh, knowing what Easter celebrates isn’t at all difficult. Heck, just looking at the opening sentence of the Wikipedia article would tell you: “Easter… is a Christian festival and holiday celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ on the third day after his crucifixion at Calvary as described in the New Testament.” No offence, but the idea that not knowing what Easter is about is at all excusable is just a further symptom of the cultural dumbing down found in the NYT article.

      • Martha

        At least now I know that, should the spirit ever move me to write a blog post on the topic, I can get away with saying “The President of the United States of America, President Bender T. Robot, in his budget speech of last night said “Flob-a-dob” – and that is a direct quote – in reference to the gap between imports and exports” and if anyone calls me on this, I can explain that this was an art piece and so the same level of editing cannot be expected 🙂

  • Larry

    Could it be that the writer consulted a theologically biased source such as a Muslim understanding of Jesus since Islam teaches that Jesus did not die but that” Allah raised him to himself.”
    The Qur’an clearly denies the crucifixion of Jesus in Surah 4:157-158 which says, “. . . they [the Jews] said (in boast), ‘We killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary, the Messenger of Allah’ – But they killed him not, nor crucified him, but so it was made to appear to them, and those who differ therein are full of doubts, with no (certain) knowledge, but only conjecture to follow, for of a surety they killed him not – Nay, Allah raised him up unto Himself .
    So, perhaps the writer of the article was consulting non-Christian traditions and became confused and reported the Islamic teaching as a Christian belief.

    • Martha

      Larry, I seriously doubt the hamsters turning the wheels at the NYT over the weekend (we can thank Jeffrey for informing us that the paper couldn’t afford real help and just left it up to the work-experience kids) have that level of theological sophistication about variant sources on the crucifixion 🙂

  • Newark

    Dear Molly:If it is you who judges the worthyness of comments…..It seems comon that those I submit are, oh what’s the phrase, held for consideration or something, but are not – that I can see ever posted. Perhaps the hevy word “sociopath” frightens you. It should’t. The other comments posted it seems to me held the same content. Isn’t there some way for me to experess – very civily – my thinking without interference? Tell me what’s your solution?

    • Newark

      Mollie; rather than post my complaint, just post the two comment replys I made and end it all….Thanks.

  • Jeffrey Weiss

    I was unclear. The level of editing on a story — at any newspaper — varies. A daily story turned in on a holiday is almost always going to pass through fewer editors than other sorts of stories — say an arts piece that will run in several days, or even a daily story on a weekday. I’ve never worked at the NYT, so I’m going out on a small limb to suggest this pattern is true there. But I’d be shocked if it weren’t. Again, this does not excuse the occasional howlers.

  • Jeffrey Weiss

    And the story we are discussing was a daily news story turned in on a holiday.

    • Martha

      I’m beating this dead horse into the ground, but Jeffrey – they decided to run a piece on the new pope’s first Easter message. Fine and dandy, it’s newsworthy, I get it.

      Then somebody – reporter, editor, who knows who – decided to lob in a line explaining what Easter was for the – well, I was going to say “ignorant masses” but the NYT readers are supposed to be the cultured cosmopolites, are they not? Okay, so they decided to put in a line explaining this quaint, obscure calendar event for their sophisticated readers who have not been exposed to these little-known beliefs held by the peasants of exotic locales.

      Again, fine. But the big point is that they got it wrong. Not just “this is a tricky bit of theology that even adherents of the faith can get wrong” but Private Eye ‘Dumb Britain’ wrong. And I’m sorry, but blaming it on “It was a holiday weekend so we relied on the tealady to paste it up while all the journos were down the boozer” is not good enough; if they don’t even know the reason why the Easter weekend is a holiday, then they should refrain from explaining it to the rest of us.

      • Mark Baddeley

        Martha – you cracked it. It’s not just that it is a basic error on something that should be common knowledge for people whose job it is to know things. It is that this error was done in a sentence added to explain this holiday to the rest of us. Since when do you choose to explain things when you yourself are ignorant of something?

  • Francis X. Maier

    The Times deserves the same hard judgment they dish out to everyone else. We shouldn’t waste time cutting this paper any breaks, or imagining reasons for the mistake that might explain its ignorance. If you follow the trail of their mistakes and slanted framings and snide asides over the years regarding Christianity, you’ll be on be on the path a long, long time. The distinguishing factor about the Times is its vanity. It’s appropriate to see them called to task for it.

  • John M.


    You are in rare form on this one and have me laughing.


  • bob

    If you want a predictable gaff, just get a reporter to comment on the immaculate conception. Like taking candy from…A journalist.