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University of Wisconsin–Madison

When “sorry” seems to be the hardest word to print

By Kendyl Salcito

The 21st century has heralded the advent of countless new journalism ethics societies, codes and vows. Ombudspersons have become fixtures in the newsroom; public apologies have become a mainstay in big papers that publish big errors. Or have they? A recent accountability failure by the New York Times requires concerned journalists to demand whether newsrooms are truly taking responsibility for all they print.

On April 24, a panel of five Indonesian judges acquitted American gold producer Newmont Gold Corp. and its president director, Richard Ness, of charges regarding environmental degradation in an Indonesian bay. The verdict was decisive, and the judges minced no words in calling the prosecution’s case “weak” and their evidence “flawed because prosecutors had used conflicting evidence, gathered unscientifically. Much of it was provided by the NGO advocates who had begun pushing to have the mine closed even before it opened.

In its coverage, the New York Times quoted the judges, recognizing the law had spoken. The Times was less forthcoming with the verdict the paper itself had laid down a year and a half prior. Times reporter Jane Perlez wrote a damning series about the goldmine that ran on page one and swept the globe. Beginning on September 8, 2004 (the same day the World Health Organization issued a report declaring the bay in question clear of mercury pollution), Perlez asserted that fish had died off and villagers had been sick since the mine opened. Perlez’s medical sources were a visiting coral paleontologist and a public health lecturer.

She rejected several doctors’ accounts of villager health. The villagers she quoted had been traveling the world with anti-mining NGOs since 2002 and earlier. For most of her claims in the article’s top 15 paragraphs, she cited no one at all. As for Newmont’s representatives and scientists, she spoke with them but failed to quote them. The indisputable conclusion readers drew from her accounts was that an American colossus was ruining the lives and livelihoods of defenseless villagers.

The story is credited with urging Indonesian authorities to arrest five Newmont employees, holding them for 32 days, uncharged, while reports came pouring in from international organizations, local universities, and government scientists indicating that the bay was clean and the villagers were suffering from very basic symptoms of poor nutrition, bad hygiene, and allergies. These reports were occasionally covered by the Times, but never on A-1. The trial’s verdict made page A-8 last month.

So, the Times never came clean on its initial faulty reports about the Newmont case. But, surely Perlez herself was scolded. Perhaps a slap on the wrist?

To the contrary, Perlez was recently promoted to the New York Times London bureau, where she continues to write A-1 stories. On May 2, she scored a front-page slot for a story on an immigration “loophole” for Britons of Pakistani descent, citing American officials with concerns over the number of terror plots involving Britons of Pakistani descent. Because British people with Pakistani parents are, by law, British, they need no visa to enter the United States. But, Perlez does not explain how this is a loophole at all – by all accounts, this is not a loophole so much as a guarantee of equal citizenship rights for all British citizens, regardless of their descent.

I have not seen a public apology from the New York Times for quite some time. Not for the faulty Newmont story in 2004, and not for the racist “loophole” story from this week. If this is allowed in 21st century accountability, we need rework our definitions. Talk is cheap they say, but it comes with a high price when readers are held in such low regard that they don’t merit apologies for such slights.

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