New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan has weighed in on a dispute between two heavyweights. In one corner is high-profile Times columnist Joe Nocera. In the other, billionaire investor Warren Buffett.
In the end, she sides with Buffett, writing that a Nocera column about Buffett is “so intrinsically flawed, a standard correction didn’t get the job done.” She’s right, for the reasons she cites and for another that I’ll note below.
Sullivan’s post focused on a pair of columns (1,2) by Nocera about Buffett and recent decisions related to executive compensation at Coca-Cola, a company in which Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway is the largest shareholder.
Sullivan notes that both of Nocera’s columns required corrections for factual errors. But even more than the mistakes, the major concern for her is that “The entire premise of the second column is built on a mistake: that Mr. Buffett had changed his tone after ‘licking his wounds’ over the reaction to statements he made on April 23, including Mr. Nocera’s criticism.”
Nocera’s second column played up the apparent change of heart as his reason writing:
I am returning to this subject because, on Monday, following widespread criticism of his decision, Buffett gave a remarkable interview to Fortune magazine’s Stephen Gandel, an interview that was strikingly different in tone from his remarks of last week.
But that Fortune interview happened before Nocera’s initial column (and other criticism) was published. So Nocera’s stated reason to return to the subject was in fact wrong.
This is the exact situation people often raise with me when expressing their frustration with the way the press handles errors. When an article or opinion column is based on an incorrect fact or mistaken assumption, they expect there to be something more than just a simple correction. They expect the offending party to admit they were wrong, or to significantly alter their original assertions.
Sullivan agrees. Calling the column “intrinsically flawed,” she outlined her preferred remedy:
Mr. Nocera should have devoted at least part of another column to telling his readers what happened and why. In his email to me, Mr. Nocera referred to the second column’s fundamental mistake as “bad/dumb/embarrassing.”
Such a forthright admission should not be confined to an email answer to the public editor’s question, but should be published in the same Times pages where the two columns ran. Ideally, the online version of the second column would provide a clear link to the mea culpa. That would go a long way toward making this right.
This raises another issue that remains unresolved: most people reading the offending column will likely read all of the incorrect assertions before getting to the correction.
The Times places its corrections at the bottom of an offending story, and it also puts “Corrections Appended” at the top of the story, and hyperlinks that text to the correction. In most cases, this is great; you can go to the correction right away if you like, or just start with the story.
However, in a situation such as this, the issue is that the Times leaves the original, incorrect text intact even after adding the correction.
Any reader who gets the bottom of the Nocera column and sees the correction is going to feel like they just read all of this stuff about Buffet’s change of heart, only to discover that it’s not the case. It should be noted right away, or in the text itself.
To Sullivan’s point, when a column is so badly flawed there needs to be something more done for readers (and the aggrieved party). Either put the correction text at the top so that it’s clearly spelled out for everyone before they read, or require Nocera to fix the column, and offer an explanation, as Sullivan suggests.
As it stands, the correction’s placement and the lack of a corrected column exacerbate the mistake.
One final note: Sullivan’s post includes a necessary disclosure that she for years worked as the top editor at a paper owned by Buffett’s company:
(Disclosure: From 1999 to 2012, I was the editor of The Buffalo News, a paper owned by Berkshire and of which Mr. Buffett is the chairman. I own no shares of Berkshire.)
I had a lingering question after reading her post: how much interaction did she have with Buffett while in her role as the top editor of a paper he owned? It occurred to me because her post for the Times includes several quotes from an interview she had with Buffett. I wondered if they had spoken before.
“I’ve met him several times over the years,” she told me after I sent a question via a Twitter direct message. “We’ve had a cordial though not close relationship.”
It’s not an issue for her to have had past interactions with Buffett. But if I wondered about that, perhaps others did, too.
Update May 13: It looks like Sullivan’s post had the desired effect. Nocera has a new column up, and he uses it to offer a more meaningful mea culpa An excerpt:
“Although The Times published a strong correction, Margaret Sullivan, the public editor, wrote that she didn’t think it went far enough because my column was ‘so intrinsically flawed.’ Upon reflection, I agree with her. I sincerely regret the error.”
Good on Nocera, and nice work by the public editor.