Monday, January 20, 2014

Do Publications Have Any Responsibility to Screen Their Editorials? (Part 3)

In my last post, I pointed out that the Wall Street Journal website is still displaying the same editorial with the same non-inflation-corrected numbers for which they had posted a correction. I concluded that it will now be interesting to see if the Wall Street Journal corrects it.

As of this posting, the Wall Street Journal has still not corrected it and I was therefore happy to see Paul Krugman also take up this issue. On January 19th, a Krugman column titled "The Undeserving Rich" was posted on the New York Times website. In it, he stated:

For an example of de facto falsification, one need look no further than a recent column by Bret Stephens of The Wall Street Journal, which first accused President Obama (wrongly) of making a factual error, then proceeded to assert that rising inequality was no big deal, because everyone has been making big gains. Why, incomes for the bottom fifth of the U.S. population have risen 186 percent since 1979!

If this sounds wrong to you, it should: that’s a nominal number, not corrected for inflation. You can find the inflation-corrected number in the same Census Bureau table; it shows incomes for the bottom fifth actually falling. Oh, and for the record, at the time of writing this elementary error had not been corrected on The Journal’s website.

On his blog, Krugman added a post titled "Department of Corrections, and Not" which recounts that Bret Stephens has contacted the Times to protest his contention that Stephens' error in using nominal incomes has not been corrected on the WSJ’s website. Krugman goes on to explain that Stephens is apparently referring to this correction but that that is not what he calls a "correction". He continues:

What, after all, is the purpose of a correction? If you’ve misinformed your readers, the first order of business is to stop misinforming them; the second, so far as possible, to let those who already got the misinformation know that they were misinformed. So you fix the error in the online version of the article, including an acknowledgement of the error; and you put another acknowledgement of the error in a prominent place, so that those who read it the first time are alerted. In the case of Times columnists, this means an embarrassing but necessary statement at the end of your next column.

Nothing like that happened in Stephens’s case. Someone reading his original column on line will see exactly the same piece that was originally published, bogus statistics and all, with no hint of a problem and no link to his mea culpa.(Or at least that was true a few minutes ago — maybe they’ll scramble to fix it now.) Maybe one in a hundred will hear somewhere that there was a problem — but for everyone else the misinformation is continuing to spread.

Krugman need not have worried as there appears to be nobody at the Journal scrambling to fix the original editorial. As of this moment, it has still has not been corrected. By the way, if you attempt to view the original column directly, you will likely just see the first few lines with a prompt to subscribe. However, there is an alternative method that usually seems to view the entire article. Go to, search for "Obama's Envy Problem", and then click on the first item which should be titled "Bret Stephens: Obama's Envy Problem -". This should bring you to the same URL but show the entire article. It may be best to use Internet Explorer for this as Chrome does not always seem to show the whole article. As can be seen, the increase of 186% for the bottom 20%, based on nominal numbers, is still there.

Rather than fix the original editorial the Journal has posted a response by Stephens titled "Stephens: Krugman and the Ayatollahs". In it, Stephens states that "a formal correction was posted on Jan. 5 and I addressed the subject at length on Jan. 3". Can't anyone at the Journal read? Do they truly not understand that Krugman is talking about correcting the original editorial still posted online? Why hasn't the Journal corrected it? A cynical person might suggest the following:

The initial editorial was read by tens or hundreds of thousands of readers and the use of nominal numbers helped to make the case that Stephens and the Journal editorial staff supported. But, as Krugman suggested, the corrections might be seen by one in a hundred of the original readers. I don't subscribe to the Journal so I don't know where those corrections were printed in the paper. But Krugman seems to indicate that a correction was not included at the end of Stephens's next column, a place where his regular readers, at least, would be likely to see it. And by leaving the original editorial uncorrected, the same editorial will be read of additional readers, likely via search engines like Google, and the same flawed numbers will continue to help make the case which Stephens and the Journal support.

Stephens also took his arguments to Twitter, tweeting the following:

Paul Krugman nastily accuses me of "crude obfuscation," in the course of which me makes a dumb factual mistake. See if you can spot it.

As someone tweets back, I think that Stephens meant "he" instead of "me". In any event, following are the final three responding tweets (at this time):

PK with an excellent point. Any "correction" should be done as an addendum to the original article.

Man up, make a legit correction, and get over it.

Why not link to your original column and Krugman's in your acknowledgement of the error? Why not note error in original column?

It will be interesting to see if Stephens responds. What will be more interesting will be if the Journal will finally correct the original editorial or include a correction at the beginning and/or end of it. If they do not, I hope that people with large readerships like Krugman continue to hold them to account. Of course, Stephens and the Journal are free to hold Krugman to account for any uncorrected columns that the Times continues to post online. However, they have not yet shown that they recognize the principle, much less are prepared to follow it.

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About Me

I became interested in U.S. budget and economic matters back in 1992, the first time that I remember the debt becoming a major issue in a presidential election. Along with this blog, I have a website on the subject at I have blogged further about my motivations for creating this blog and website at this link. Recently, I've been working on replicating studies such as the analysis at this link.

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