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Bug #30273 closed:unresolved

The first President Bush didn't sign 1993 Rio Treaty

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This bug appeared in a news report published by New York Times on Jun 30, 2009 by Thomas Friedman. View the original news report.
Bug Type:  Simple Factual Error

Thomas Friedman wrote:

"How could Republicans become so anti-environment, just when the country is going green? Historically speaking, 'Republicans can claim as much credit for America’s environmental leadership as Democrats,' noted Glenn Prickett, senior vice president at Conservation International. 'The two greatest environmental presidents in American history were Teddy Roosevelt, who created our national park system, and Richard Nixon, whose administration gave us the Clean Air Act and the Environmental Protection Agency.' George Bush Sr. signed the 1993 Rio Treaty, to preserve biodiversity."

That last sentence about President Bush signing the 1993 Rio Treaty to preserve biodiversity is false. 


Supporting Information:


http://lawreview.wustl.edu/inprint/76-1/761-18.html  (See paragraphs four and five)

http://www.loe.org/shows/segments.html?programID=93-P13-00017&segmentID=2   (see third question in transcript)

http://sovereignty.net/p/land/biotreatystop.htm   (see the third section, titled "The Treaty")




Hal Espen has contacted New York Times

Bug History

Jul 21, 2011 3:29 pm Open Hal Espen
Jul 21, 2011 3:54 pm Open: Under Discussion Mark Follman
Aug 19, 2011 10:08 am Open: Responded To Mark Follman
Oct 19, 2011 9:01 am Closed: Unresolved admin

Discussion Leave a comment

Thanks for submitting this error report. We've emailed the New York Times for a response.

Jul 21, 2011 3:54 pm

Now that almost a week has gone by with no response from Tom Friedman or the Times, I'd like to add that I've previously written to the Times, to Mr. Friedman, and to the newspaper's public editor about this straightforward (but politically significant) error, and never received a reply. (Unfortunately, Readers' Comments for this column were no longer being accepted by the time I noticed the mistake.) It leads me to wonder if the system for correcting factual errors in opinion pieces at the Times is broken. Of course, I recognize that there are limits to correcting old mistakes in digital news archives, as the MediaBugs editors discussed in their Atlantic.com article. On the other hand, digital archives make it incredibly easy to add important corrections, and this mistake is only two years old. I hope the Times addresses my claim that this is a categorical mistake and doesn't simply continue to ignore it.

Jul 27, 2011 12:17 pm

We have since contacted the editors of the Times' Op-Ed pages and have requested a public response regarding this error report.

Aug 17, 2011 5:33 pm

Over the last week we have corresponded by email about this bug report with two editors at the Times as well as with Thomas Friedman himself. The editors have indicated to us that the Times will not be correcting the error. Further complicating matters, Friedman's role as an op-ed columnist means that his work is handled by entirely different editorial managers from the rest of the Times' news operation.

The Times editors declined to be quoted publicly about it and instead referred us to the communications department for an official statement. (We inquired there, too, but have yet to get one.) Essentially, they told us that this error is too old; the cutoff for corrections is more or less one year, they said, although it is not a hard and fast policy and older errors can be considered on a case-by-case basis. One of the editors acknowledged that this particular issue in Friedman's column is easily checkable, but that given the time frame it would not merit a correction, regardless.

We inquired with Friedman about it as well. He responded by email: "A quick Google tells me you are correct, in which case the column in the digital archive should be corrected. Thanks for pointing it out."

But in a follow-up email he said, "I checked on this and was told that the newsroom has a rule that we don't go back in time to correct minor errors in the archive. They draw a line at one year."

This, of course, raises the question whether this error should be considered "minor." If President Bush didn't sign the Rio Treaty in 1993, Friedman's argument in the column that Republicans used to be more friendly to the environmental cause is significantly weakened.

The Times' lack of clarity with its approach to archival corrections is something Scott and I examined thoroughly in July, in our in-depth article published in The Atlantic, "The Case of the New York Times Terror Error." That case involved a nine-year-old error sitting in the Times archive — ostensibly a minor one, until it blew up into a major one this spring. (Despite its age, the Times did end up issuing a correction for it.)

While we appreciate the formidable challenges of handling substantive errors in the Times' archive, as we explained in the above article it is a plausible process in the digital age. It is also a necessary one.

Aug 19, 2011 10:07 am

This is a fascinating outcome; and a minor case, to be sure, but also a cascading series of willful misprisions on the part of the New York Times. First, sadly, no one noticed the error immediately following publication. Second, comments on the column were closed at the Times website by the time I noticed the mistake. Third, there were no replies to the letters I sent to the Times and to Mr. Friedman about this error. Fourth, nearly two years later, my discovery of MediaBugs as a potential platform for eliciting a response proved fruitful. Fifth and finally (for now, anyway), we have a decision that a bureaucratic and faintly Curb Your Enthusiasm-like cut-off point of one year following publication will prevent the posting of a correction in the New York Times digital archive.

Thomas Friedman’s first reaction — that the archive should be corrected — was the instinct of a stand-up reporter. His second response — to accede to the institutional stiff-arming — is regrettable. It would be far wiser for the Times to maintain a greater degree of flexibility, particularly in light of the trivial effort it would take to post a correction in this instance.

As a former editor, I sympathize with the need to draw the line somewhere and with a reluctance to devote diminishing resources to burrowing backward into the news-cycle equivalent of ancient history. But as a fervent reader, admirer, and occasional contributor to the Times, this one-year rule sticks in my craw as a certifiable Catch-22: after all, my attempt to alert the Times to the mistake within the first year of publication disappeared into a black hole, yet now that the error has at last been acknowledged, it’s too late.

As an environmentalist, I remain sorry to see the first President Bush and the Republican Party of the 1990s given credit in such a significant venue for acting to preserve biodiversity, when they did no such thing. Of course, it’s highly unlikely that Mr. Friedman’s bold, categorical, and utterly false sentence is fated to become a disinformation sleeper factoid that lurks until the day it is cited by some credulous soul, causing unknown mischief and embarrassment for everyone involved, including the Times and Thomas Friedman. But who knows? Meanwhile, at least the record stands corrected here at this website, and I’m grateful to the MediaBugs editors for pursuing my bug report and exploring these questions of journalistic accountability in such a thorough, sophisticated, and fair-minded fashion.

Aug 19, 2011 12:07 pm

We received a statement this afternoon from Times communications director Danielle Rhoades Ha:

"For practical reasons, The New York Times opinion pages do not customarily correct minor errors that are more than a year old."

Aug 19, 2011 12:43 pm