The Embarrassing Corrections of the NYT’s Newest Op-Ed Columnist

New York Times business columnist Joe Nocera is being promoted to the Times‘ op-ed page, where he’ll appear twice weekly. Regular FAIR Blog readers may recall Nocera as the star of this item (7/1/10):

On Saturday (6/26/10), Times business columnist Joe Nocera argued against a proposed moratorium on deepwater drilling. One of his main points was that deepwater drilling–except for, you know, that current problem in the Gulf of Mexico–is remarkably clean, and that other drilling methods were worse:

Which also leads to a great irony: importing more oil via tankers will actually create more risk, not less. Between 1964 and the Deepwater Horizon accident, a grand total of 1,800 barrels of oil were lost from rig accidents–an average of 45 barrels a year. That is an astonishing record. Ken Arnold, an expert who consulted with the Interior Department right after the BP spill–and a big critic of the moratorium–told me that much more oil is spilled in tanker accidents annually than from drilling rig accidents.

A mere 45 barrels a year is indeed astonishing. It’s also way, way off the mark, as a Times correction today admits (emphasis added):

The Talking Business column on Saturday, about the effect of a moratorium on deepwater drilling for oil in the Gulf of Mexico, misstated the record of oil spills in the Outer Continental Shelf. From 1964 to 2009, 532,000 barrels of oil were lost as a result of spills, not 1,800 barrels. (The lower figure refers to oil lost as a result of blowouts from 1971 to 2009, not to the overall amount of oil lost in accidents.)

One thousand, five hundred thousand–the point’s still valid, right?

I’ve found that this is a good rule of thumb: If a fact truly astonishes you, double check it, because your astonishment might be a sign that you’re getting it wrong.

Nocera was earlier responsible for a similarly embarrassing correction–one that came with an extra helping of hubris (Extra! Update, 12/05):

In a New York Times business column (11/5/05), Joseph Nocera took to task the documentary Wal-Mart: The High Price of Low Cost for not including Wal-Mart’s point of view–even though, as Nocera noted, Wal-Mart refused to be interviewed for the film. When filmmaker Robert Greenwald suggested that “a corporation with $10 billion in profits” could probably speak for itself, Nocera quipped, “The actual 2004 profits were $9.1 billion, but who’s counting?” Not Nocera, apparently: The Times published a correction (11/8/05) noting that his column “included an outdated reference to the company’s profit. It was $10.3 billion for the 2005 fiscal year, which ended January 31; the $9.1 billion cited was for fiscal 2004.”

Some people learn from their mistakes, and some people don’t seem to be able to. Let’s hope Nocera is in the former category.

About Jim Naureckas

Extra! Magazine Editor Since 1990, Jim Naureckas has been the editor of Extra!, FAIR's monthly journal of media criticism. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the newspaper In These Times, where he covered the Iran-Contra scandal, and was managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, a newsletter on Latin America. Jim was born in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1964, and graduated from Stanford University in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in political science. Since 1997 he has been married to Janine Jackson, FAIR's program director. You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JNaureckas.