Last April, the New York Times Magazine published an article titled "Pro-Life Nation" decrying the criminalization of abortion in El Salvador. To drive home his point, writer Jack Hitt reported the story of 26-year-old Carmen Climaco, who had been sentenced to 30 years in prison "for an abortion that was ruled a homicide."
Hitt reported as fact that Climaco had aborted her pregnancy at 18 weeks. The trial record, however, told a different story — "that Ms. Climaco’s pregnancy had resulted in a full-term live birth, and that she had strangled the 'recently born' [baby]."
The physician who had performed the autopsy on the “recently born” testified that it represented a “full-term” birth, which he defined as a pregnancy with a duration of “between 38 and 42 weeks,” the ruling noted. In adopting those conclusions, the court said of another autopsy finding: “Given that the lungs floated when submerged in water, also indicating that the recently-born was breathing at birth, this confirms that we are dealing with an independent life.”That's a hell of a distinction: aborting an 18-week fetus, versus strangling a newborn baby. Hitt claimed that he got his facts second-hand from a magistrate who "had been helpful in other areas of the story and quite open." Hitt never bothered to check the trial record. But according to the New York Times public editor, "Obtaining the public document isn’t difficult. At my request, a stringer for The Times in El Salvador walked into the court building without making any prior arrangements a few days ago, and minutes later had an official copy of the court ruling."
The public editor concluded:
The care taken in the reporting and editing of this example didn’t meet the magazine’s normal standards. Although Sarah H. Smith, the magazine’s editorial manager, told me that relevant court documents are “normally” reviewed, Mr. Hitt never checked the 7,600-word ruling in the Climaco case while preparing his story. And Mr. Hitt told me that no editor or fact checker ever asked him if he had checked the court document containing the panel’s decision...Despite these revelations, the New York Times Magazine editorial staff does not intend to public a retraction or correction. In fact, the Magazine's editor, Gerald Marzorati, dismissed the trial record despite the absence of any contradictory evidence. Marzorati simply said, "El Salvador's judicial system is terribly politicized."
One thing is clear to me, at this point, about the key example of Carmen Climaco. Accuracy and fairness were not pursued with the vigor Times readers have a right to expect.
This is what people are talking about when they reference the "liberal media bias," and this is why people disparage the New York Times as a partisan rag: Because its writers cherry-pick anecdotes to support their pet causes — and when one of those anecdotes proves to be a fabrication, the newspaper abandons journalistic ethics and refuses to acknowledge the truth.