Major errors at The New York Times destroy the premise of two stories

There have been two enormous mistakes in The New York Times this week — errors that completely undermined the premise of the stories.

1. On Monday, Lisa Friedman wrote that government scientists had surreptitiously given her a draft report on climate change because they were concerned that the Trump administration would suppress it. But as Erik Wemple of The Washington Post explained, the report had been publicly available for months, and was even parked at the Internet Archive.

2. On Wednesday, Adam Nagourney reported on an internecine battle among California Democrats that is supposed to tell us something about the struggle between the party’s progressive and establishment wings. It struck me as pretty thin gruel given that we learn both combatants in the bid for party chair, Eric Bauman and Kimberly Ellis, supported Hillary Clinton last year, although Bernie Sanders is supporting Ellis now.

But then we get to the bottom and see this: “An earlier version of this article misstated the candidate Kimberly Ellis supported in the Democratic primary race last year. It was Hillary Clinton, not Senator Bernie Sanders.”

Imagine reading this before the correction was made. It’s a completely different story. It’s not about the continued hostility between Clinton and Sanders supporters at all. As with the climate-change story, it’s the sort of article that might very well not have been published at all if the facts had been clear beforehand.

I know that quite a few copy editors lost their jobs at the Times recently. Could that have something to do with it? Maybe. But the Times still has a larger editing corps than any other paper. Moreover, these kinds of large, conceptual errors strike me as something that have been endemic at the Times for many years. I suspect it has more to do with the culture than the copy editing.

Sounds like a good topic for the public editor. Oh, wait. Never mind.

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Pence’s petulance undescores his tricky relationship with Trump

Mike Pence. Photo (cc) 2015 by Gage Skidmore.

Few members of the Trump administration have carried themselves with more unctuous sycophancy than Mike Pence. “Thank you, Mr. President, and just the greatest privilege of my life is to serve as vice president to a president who’s keeping his word to the American people,” the former Indiana governor said at that North Korean-style cabinet meeting back in June. At joint public appearances, Pence gazes at President Trump with a mixture of admiration, gratitude, and sheer astonishment at finding himself just a heartbeat away from the presidency.

But now Trump and Pence may be on the outs. The proximate cause is a New York Times story over the weekend reporting the not especially earthshattering news that Pence is keeping his powder dry in case Trump does not run for re-election in 2020.

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Why Apple was right to comply with China’s censorship demands

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Over the weekend Apple removed software from its Chinese App Store that enabled iPhone users to get around censorship laws in that country. The action was widely portrayed as a blow to those working for freedom and human rights in China. And it seemed especially tawdry following as it did the recent death of Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo while in Chinese custody.

But I would argue that Apple did the right thing. My intention is not to write a love letter to Apple, whose leadership, I’m sure, was motivated more by commerce rather than by conscience. Nevertheless, Apple’s decision was a welcome example of Americans’ dealing with the world as it is rather than as they wish it to be. Our values are not everyone’s values.

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Errol Morris’ wonderful portrait of Cambridge photographer Elsa Dorfman

Elsa Dorfman. Photo copyright © 2010 by Tim Kennedy. All rights reserved.

Last weekend we had a chance to see “The B-Side,” Errol Morris’ wonderful documentary about the Cambridge portrait photographer Elsa Dorfman. I know Elsa through her husband, Harvey Silverglate, my friend and occasional collaborator. She also once took our family’s picture for a Boston Phoenix article. Our son, Tim, took Elsa’s photo a few years ago when he was attending photography school.

Dorfman is warm and outgoing, and her photos reflect that. Now mostly retired, she is best known for her work with a large-format Polaroid camera that takes 20-by-24-inch photos. And though she is known for her portraits of artists such as Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan, she’s also taken photos of literally hundreds of ordinary families who found their way to her studio. In the film, she comes across as intensely proud and self-aware, yet still the same person who once sold her photos out of a shopping cart in Harvard Square.

Here’s some backstory that the film does not explain: Several years ago Morris wrote a book about Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald, the former Army doctor serving a life prison term after being convicted of murdering his pregnant wife and young children. The book brought Morris into contact with Silverglate and Dorfman, as Silverglate is a member of MacDonald’s legal team. As Morris’ book, “A Wilderness of Error,” clearly shows, MacDonald did not receive a fair trial and may actually be innocent. (I reviewed the book for BookForum.)

Morris is a master storyteller, and Dorfman is an ideal subject. As Richard Brody wrote recently in The New Yorker, Dorfman is “a remarkable presence, a cinematic character whose comments distill a lifetime of wisdom, self-awareness, frustration, and survivor’s pride.” Go see it.

Did Trump know what he was doing when he banned transgender troops?

Photo (cc) 2014 by Darren Johnson.

I think the key to understanding President Trump’s ban on transgender troops is contained within a much-discussed Politico story. According to the article, by Rachel Bade and Josh Dawsey, Trump was trying to appease right-wing House members who wanted Trump to rescind funding of transgender-related medical treatment for military personnel. In return, those House members would support funding for the wall that Mexico is not going to pay for.

Now, refusing to pay for medical care is bad enough. But Trump went much further than anyone expected by banning transgender people from the military altogether. Here is the key excerpt from Bade and Dawsey’s story:

“This is like someone told the White House to light a candle on the table and the WH set the whole table on fire,” a senior House Republican aide said in an email. The source said that although GOP leaders asked the White House for help on the taxpayer matter specifically, they weren’t expecting — and got no heads up on — Trump’s far-reaching directive.

So what happened? My guess is that Trump, raging at the world and lacking any understanding of the issues, didn’t realize that right-wingers for the most part were not asking him to ban trans troops. As you can see from this Washington Post analysis by James Hohmann, the most conservative Republicans from the most conservative parts of the country are speaking out against the ban. Trump literally didn’t know what he was doing.

And it wouldn’t be the first time. During the campaign, you may recall, Trump said that women who undergo abortion should face “some form of punishment,” as CNN reported. Leaders of the anti-abortion-rights movement freaked out, waving their arms frantically and insisting that they don’t say things like that anymore. Trump backed down. To use a word that is quickly becoming overused, Trump is strictly transactional. He made his comments not out of any deeply felt sense that abortion is always wrong but to cement his ties to the religious right. And he tweaked his position once he realized he was off-key.

So it is, I suspect, with the transgender ban. This was not deeply thought-out; by all accounts, it wasn’t thought-out at all. It was Trump on Twitter, doing what he does. He blundered into going much further than anyone other than Tony Perkins (New York Times article) was asking him to go, and now he — and all of us — have to live with it.

Let me close on a less what-does-it-mean-politically note. Wednesday turned out to be one of the worst days of the Trump presidency — perhaps the worst since he announced the first version of his ban on Muslims trying to enter the country. We should all feel sick and appalled at Trump’s casual cruelty and his willingness to indulge hatred if he thinks it will give him some momentary advantage.

Love your neighbor.

How Trump’s toxic touch could contaminate the scouting movement

Photo (cc) 2013 by Phoebe Baker.

Note: On Thursday, July 27, the BSA’s chief scout executive, Mike Surbaugh, issued a strong statement about Trump’s speech that said in part, “We sincerely regret that politics were inserted into the Scouting program.” Read the whole thing here.

Donald Trump contaminates everything he touches. So no one should have been surprised when his speech at the Boy Scouts’ national jamboree took a nasty turn into partisan politics. After all, it’s always about him.

But there is a larger issue at stake here: the fate of the Boy Scouts of America, which has been slowly evolving out of its discriminatory past. As an Eagle scout, a former scoutmaster, and the father of an Eagle scout, I really care about the future of the organization. And I’m concerned that President Trump’s toxic rhetoric will stain a movement already seen by many as anachronistic.

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So two Republicans and I sat down in a bar …

… And you can listen to the results on SoundCloud. Thank you to Jeff Semon and Ed Lyons for inviting me onto “The Lincoln Review.” We talked for more than an hour about media and politics. But it was OK, because we were all drinking. You can subscribe to their podcast on iTunes. I understand that video will be up in a few days as well. God help us.

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