A message for the Times: Justice delayed is justice denied

The New York Times prides itself on its uniquely high standards of accuracy and fairness. So why did its overseas edition take so long to correct the record when I was misrepresented a year ago?

For nearly a year I have been seeking justice in a complaint against the International Herald Tribune newspaper, which is the Paris-based global edition of the New York Times. The problem concerns two letters to the editor which damagingly misrepresented me. In the end the editors printed a correction but, in contrast with their usual promptness, they did so only after an unexplained — and ostensibly inexplicable — delay of nearly three months. (Click here to see the letters, the correction, and the original article to which the letters referred: http://www.unsustainable.org/pdf/articles-1208.pdf) This period coincided with the launch of my new book, In the Jaws of the Dragon: America’s Fate in the Coming Era of Chinese Hegemony (New York: St. Martin’s Press). The effect was that I was demonized in the Nexis news clippings database, which is widely used in the media to check out the background of authors of new books, at the most important moment of my career (In the Jaws of the Dragon is the culmination of more than two decades of study of the East Asian region and of nearly four decades of writing about economics and finance).

The correction did not appear until two weeks after the book’s launch and even then was not made available on-line until I complained again (and has been only intermittently available on-line since). The correction came too late to minimize the damage to my launch. In other words, this was a case where justice delayed meant justice denied.

The crux of the matter is I want to know why the correction took so long (the Herald Tribune generally prints corrections within a week or two and often faster). Not only have the immediately responsible editors in Paris stonewalled me but top editors in New York have ignored countless couriered letters and email messages. I seem now to have exhausted all conventional means of redress.

There are two possibilities: either the editors in Paris had a good reason — or at least an excusable one — for the delay, or they did not. In the former case why have they not been prepared to discuss this privately at least? (I have made clear that I have no intention of suing and am happy to sign an affidavit to that effect.) I am aware that many of the more worldly wise of my friends believe I am lucky to have received a correction at all. They have become inured to the fact that major American news organizations are rogue elephants who routinely stretch the law to the maximum in mangling the truth and trampling on the rights of aggrieved parties. Perhaps I am naive but I believe the New York Times should hold itself to a higher standard.

What I do know from four decades of observing major business and governmental organizations on three continents is that it is the mark of quality organizations everywhere that they pride themselves on the openness and alacrity with which they deal with complaints. Why should media organizations be any different? I attach a detailed description of the affair and a list of questions which the New York Times group has failed to answer.

The “Despicable” Affair: Background Note On the Position as of December 11, 2008

The affair began after I wrote an editorial page article on the Nanking massacre for the International Herald Tribune — the New York Times’s overseas edition — in December 2007. A few days later the paper published two readers’ letters on the same day which, by a remarkable coincidence, suggested — without a shred of evidence — that my article had espoused views associated with Japan’s lunatic right. “Despicable” was how one of the letters characterized the views the article had ostensibly advanced. Supposedly not only had I held that imperial Japan had committed no war atrocities but I wanted references to the Nanking massacre excised from Japanese textbooks! These characterizations were preposterously at odds not only with the obvious evidence of the article but with my general record as a writer. I actually rank with the late Iris Chang as one of the most insistent critics of Japan’s war legacy. In a book published in 1995, I led the foreign press in exposing Tokyo’s erstwhile virtually unpublicized not-a-penny war compensation policy. Moreover I have repeatedly embarrassed Chinese leaders by pointing out that, under a sub-rosa deal concluded with Tokyo in the early 1970s, they have cooperated in blocking Chinese citizens victims from claiming compensation from Japan in American courts.

I immediately complained to the Herald Tribune’s editorial page editor and took it for granted that, in line with the paper’s normal policy, the record would soon be set straight. After all, this was an open and shut case and the mischaracterization was exceptionally damaging, particularly in view of the fact that, as the editors were aware, I happened to have a new book coming out.

All the circumstantial evidence moreover suggested that I had been the victim of a sophisticated geopolitical disinformation initiative.

(Disinformation of this sort is standard in the East Asia watching field and anyone who writes frankly on sensitive issues such Beijing’s acquiescence in Tokyo’s not-a-penny war compensation policy can expect his or her share. In the affair at issue here, the Herald Tribune misrepresentations are only the most easily documented of several strange “mishaps” that damaged my book’s launch. The book is exceptionally controversial in that, among other things, it argues that in an era of “one-way globalism” the West is converging to East Asian values and not the other way around. In particular freedom of speech is visibly being eroded in the West and where issues such as globalism are concerned the pressure to keep the discussion within tight limits comes in large measure from the East Asian trade lobby or from that lobby’s surrogates in corporate America.)

In the event, though I followed up with several reminders to the editorial page editor, it took the Herald Tribune nearly three months to publish a correction. Couched in the form of an “Editors’ Note,” this appeared only after my book In the Jaws of the Dragon: America’s Fate in the Coming Era of Chinese Hegemony was published on March 4.

The net effect was that in the run-up to the book’s launch these preposterous letters came up first, in the same file and sans correction, for searches for my name at both Nexis and at iht.com.

Even worse, for much of the time the original article that they were ostensibly paraphrasing was nowhere to be found, though it had been posted at both sites at publication time. It is not putting it too strongly to say that I was demonized. (As of early December 2008 the original article had again disappeared from Nexis.com. Meanwhile one of the offending letters existed there in uncorrected form as a stand-alone document.) On the basis of a survey of “Editors’ Notes” going back to the beginning of this decade, I have found no other instance where the Herald Tribune took so long to print a correction. The previous longest delay — one of 82 days — involved a difficult and obviously contested issue where a correctio n was mandated in the end by a French court. By comparison the delay in my case was 87 days, yet the evidence that I had been wronged had been indisputable from the start.

After I had completed promotional activities for my new book, I began investigating what happened and in particular why the correction had taken so long. The Herald Tribune editorial page editor has refused permission to reproduce his two-sentence note of September 23 but the gist of his position is that he “tried more than once” to explain what happened and that the matter is “now closed.” I am not aware that he has explained anything or even “tried” to and I replied to this effect. I have heard nothing more. Parallel efforts to get the Public Editor to investigate the affair have proved even less fruitful. The Public Editor has never even acknowledged any of several hard-copy letters couriered to him since June.

One final point which may or may not be relevant: in a conversation with the editorial page editor before the correction appeared, he seemed to imply that he lacked authority to authorize a correction but was sympathetic to my case. I assumed this meant he would take the matter up with higher authority, which I took, perhaps wrongly, to mean either the editor in chief or some editorial committee. Later after I asked the editor in chief in May for his side of the story, the editorial page editor intervened to reveal that he (the editorial page editor) had had sole discretion all along. Although I don’t think anything he said was untruthful, his lack of frankness proved confusing.

At the end of the day two facts remain:

1. The paper took an inordinately long time to print a correction.

2. The Times’s complaint handling system has failed in its duty to investigate the delay.

The “Despicable” Affair: Unanswered Questions (as repeatedly stonewalled by New York Times group editors in both Paris and New York)

1. Has the IHT established the identities of the ostensible writers of the letters and were these people writing under their real names? (Fact: Neither of these people seems to be listed in the relevant telephone directories and, based on a Nexis search, neither seems to have a record of ever writing to a newspaper before or since.) 2. Given the objectively absurd nature of the misrepresentations, why did not the IHT make appropriate checks before publication? 3. Why did the IHT take so long to publish a correction? (Fact: From the date of the letters’ publication to the date of the published correction, 87 days elapsed. On th e basis of a survey of “Editors’ Notes” going back to the beginning of this decade, I have found no other instance where the IHT took so long to publish a correction. The previous longest delay — one of 82 days — involved a difficult and obviously conte sted issue where a correction was mandated in the end by a French court. By contrast in the case at issue here, no sifting of evidence was necessary; quite literally an intelligent ten-year-old would instantly have seen not only that my complaint was vali d but that those who misrepresented were pursuing a maliciously mendacious agenda.) 4. What was the explanation for the initial delay in posting the Editors’ Note online (although the note appeared in the print edition on March 17, it was not posted at I HT.com or Nexis until considerably later and only after I complained)? 5. Given that the Editors’ Note subsequently disappeared from both the IHT home page and Nexis, what security measures are in place to ensure that online archives are not interfered w ith by unauthorized people?

Much could be added about strange inconsistencies in the way that articles are presented in online newspaper archives. In this instance, for much of the time before my book was published on March 4 (and before the correction appeared), the offending letters were featured together as one item in Nexis yet the article to which they referred had completely disappeared from Nexis (though it had previously been findable there).

Eamonn Fingleton is the author of In the Jaws of the Dragon: America’s Fate in the Coming Era of Chinese Hegemony (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2008).

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