When you read a newspaper's corrections page, you don't always get a full sense of the mistakes the paper has made–but you do get a pretty clear sense of how far it's willing to go in admitting that it erred.
A May 1 piece by Jodi Rudoren of the New York Times provides an interesting case study. The story is about an Israeli soldier, David Adamov, "who was videotaped having an aggressive confrontation with Palestinian teenagers in the always tense West Bank city of Hebron."
Adamov rather dramatically cocked and raised his gun at some of the men with whom he was arguing–looking as if he was ready to shoot them at close range. The video became popular on the Web. It brought waves of criticism, but also a social media campaign in Israel to support the solider.
But the most unusual thing about the piece was one line: "It also turned out that one of the teenagers in Hebron had brass knuckles."
As Patrick Connors of Mondoweiss (5/9/14) reported, there was no way the Times could have substantiated that as a fact. The original video of the confrontation shows no such evidence; one of the Palestinian youths is holding something in his hand, but it's dangling down, unlike brass knuckles.
The group that shot the video, Youth Against Settlements, claimed that no one had weapons; what were being called brass knuckles were actually prayer beads. But the accusation–which was reported in some Israeli outlets–bolstered the defense of the Israeli soldier.
A few days after Rudoren's story, Youth Against Settlements released another video, in which what the teenager is holding can be seen more clearly. Sure enough, they're prayer beads. "[Saddam] Abu Sneinah, who was arrested and questioned last week, says he was holding a Misbaha, a string of Muslim prayer beads, and not brass knuckles as reported in some accounts," the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz (5/4/14) reported. "The new video confirms his claim."
In an interesting turn, Connors reports that the Times actually interviewed Issa Amro , a member of the group, and he says he told Rudoren that no one on the scene had brass knuckles.
Many emailed the paper to ask that it correct the story; Connors reports that it took several days for the Times to respond. The paper eventually–seven days later, according to NewsDiffs–changed the offending sentence to this: "There were also widespread reports that one of the teenagers in Hebron had had brass knuckles." That's true, but missing the essential fact that those reports were false.
And the paper would finally run a correction:
An earlier version of this article overstated what is known about one of the Palestinian teenagers pictured in the video. Local media initially reported that he had brass knuckles, but the youth later said he was holding prayer beads instead. The Israeli military is still investigating the incident, including whether any of the youths had weapons.
That correction understates what is known: While Israeli media were saying one thing and the youth something else, you can look at the videos for yourself and see that the youth was telling the truth and the media reports were wrong. The suggestion that eventually the Israeli military will come out with a report and then we'll know what really happened is rather surreal.
In any case, it's strange that an error so fundamental–one that never should have made it into the paper in the first place–would take so long to correct. And it's a pretty safe bet that without the activists pressing the Times, no correction of any kind would ever have been issued.