Corrections in the Web Age: The Case of the New York Times' Terror Error

Newspapers honed their policies in the print age, when appending a correction was the best feasible option. That's no longer the case.

14-words.jpg

It is hard to describe the interview that took place on KQED's Forum show on May 25, 2011, as anything other than a train wreck.

Osama bin Laden was dead, and Frank Lindh -- father of John Walker Lindh, the "American Taliban" -- had been invited on to discuss a New York Times op-ed piece he'd just published about his son's 20-year prison sentence. The moment host Dave Iverson completed his introduction about the politically and emotionally charged case, Lindh cut in: "Can I add a really important correction to what you just said?"

Iverson had just described John Walker Lindh's 2002 guilty plea as "one count of providing services to a terrorist organization." That, Frank Lindh said, was simply wrong.

Yes, his son had pled guilty to providing services to the Taliban, in whose army he had enlisted. Doing so was a crime because the Taliban government was under U.S. economic sanctions for harboring Al Qaeda. But the Taliban was not (and has never been) classified by the U.S. government as a terrorist organization itself.

This distinction might seem picayune. But it cut to the heart of the disagreement between Americans who have viewed John Walker Lindh as a traitor and a terrorist and those, like his father, who believe he was a fervent Muslim who never intended to take up arms against his own country.

That morning, the clash over this one fact set host and guest on a collision course for the remainder of the 30-minute interview. The next day, KQED ran a half-hour Forum segment apologizing for the mess and picking over its own mistakes.

KQED's on-air fiasco didn't happen randomly or spontaneously. The collision was set in motion nine years before by 14 erroneous words in the New York Times.

This is the story of how that error was made, why it mattered, why it hasn't been properly corrected to this day -- and what lessons it offers about how newsroom traditions of verification and correction must evolve in the digital age.

* * *

frontpage.jpgOn July 16, 2002, the Times ran a top-of-the-front-page story about John Walker Lindh's plea-bargain agreement. "American Who Joined Taliban Pleads Guilty to Felony Charges," the print headline read.

Lindh was a 20-year-old American citizen who turned up in Afghanistan in November, 2001, in the wake of a bloody, chaotic prison uprising in Mazar-i-Sharif. His story gradually emerged: He'd grown up in Washington, D.C., and California, converted to Islam in 1997, and in 2000 moved to Yemen and then Pakistan to study at a madrasa. Some time in spring 2001 he crossed the border to Afghanistan. There, he enlisted in the Taliban army, which was then engaged in a civil war with the warlords of the Northern Alliance, and trained at an Al Qaeda-funded camp.

All this preceded 9/11. By the time Lindh was captured, President Bush had declared a "global war on terror," and the young man became a lightning-rod for public outrage in the U.S. In February, 2002, the Justice Department loudly unveiled 10 charges from a federal grand jury against him, most of them terrorism-related. But in a plea deal five months later, Lindh admitted only to having violated U.S. law by serving in the Taliban army and carrying weapons while doing so. Prosecutors dropped all the other charges.

Neil Lewis, a New York Times legal correspondent based in the D.C. bureau, covered the case and filed the paper's front-page, 1,500-word piece on the guilty plea. In that July 16, 2002, story, Lewis wrote:

"Mr. Lindh agreed to plead guilty to one of the 10 counts in the indictment against him. It charged he had provided service to the Taliban, which is a felony because President Bush and former President Bill Clinton had declared the party a terrorist organization."

The final 14 words of this passage -- which KQED relied on, nine years later -- were inaccurate. Neither president, Bush or Clinton, had ever formally declared the Taliban to be a terrorist organization. The State Department maintains a special list of entities that the U.S. considers to be terrorist groups. Though the Taliban has been subject to a variety of serious economic sanctions since 1999, when Clinton first put it on the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control list, it has never received official designation as a terrorist outfit. (This Metafilter thread discusses some possibilities why.)

Today, the now-retired Lewis says he can't recall how he made the error: "I don't remember whether it was my mistake or an editor's, or something that a prosecutor might've told me."

Lewis says no one pointed the error out at the time. And Frank Lindh didn't bring it to the Times' attention then, either: "At the time it was originally published," Lindh says, "my family and I were extremely preoccupied."

So the error sat in the Times archive for nine years, until KQED unearthed it.

Presented by

Scott Rosenberg & Mark Follman

Scott Rosenberg is director and Mark Follman is associate director of MediaBugs, a public service for tracking and fixing errors in news coverage.

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