Embedded errors and false "facts" in perpetuity

People, usually from the rightward end of the poltical specturm, love to blast the New York times for having transformed its supposedly objective news reports into left-wing opinion pieces. It's true that the Times runs more "news analyses" than it used to, and allows reporters to interpret their facts more freely. But such rightish ranting smudges the sometimes subtle distinctions between supposedly objective reporting and supposedly subjective commentary (or criticism). Facts have to be chosen to fit into any "objective" story, and that's a subjective act. To be credible, any opinion has to rest on some sort of fact. Yet however difficult to achieve, truth and accuracy remain admirable goals for any writer, all the more honorably if sought amidst the clatter and din of polarized politics.

All of this floated into my brain as I was thinking about more mundane facts, and how the Internet, more dramatically than archival reserach, multiplies the impact of any seemingly innocent error. I can think of three errors of fact relating directly to me, meaning I was their subject, not their agent.

One is the habit of the New York Times, and hence most everyone who relies on the
Times for its facts, to refer to Chen Shi-Zheng's epic six part, three-day production of the Chinese kunju opera masterpiece "The Peony Pavilion" as lasting 19, or sometimes 20, hours. I conceived and produced that production for the Lincoln Center Festival and saw it many times. I can assure you it lasted 18 hours, each of the six parts being more or less three hours on the nose, with no intermissions (except long ones between the matinee and evening parts on a given day). But someone decided it was 19 (or 20) hours, and that's what comes up if anyone checks the Times data base, so 19 (or 20) it shall be forevermore.

Easier to fix was a Wikipedia biographical entry on me, wherein it was falsely stated that I was part of the family that founded and owns Rockwell International, the California weapons manufacturer. My family has never had anything to do with Rockwell International. Being even more technologically inept then than I am now, I got my friend Tim Page to delete that offending sentence. The assertion will crop again, somewhere, but at least the last time I looked it was not in Wikipedia.

More stubborn was the entry on me by my friend Patrick J. Smith in the New Grove Dictionary of American Music. Smith asserted that I had come to classical music after 1980 and after I had established myself as a rock critic. The reverse is true; I got into rock after I had come to the NY Times in 1972 as a classical critic, and I remained one throughout the 70's. This was a sensitive issue for me in the 80's because I didn't want people to think that I was some untrained pop bozo who had stumbled into the classics. I'm more relaxed about all that now.

The larger issues behind these rather self-referential tales involve the need for everyone -- writers, editors, fact-checkers -- to exercise care. The Times at least corrects its more obvious errors (though not about the length of "The Peony Pavilion"!) in print and appends the corrections to the electronic versions. The New Yorker, the most fact-checked magazine we have, recently referred to Chen Shi-Zheng as if Shi-Zheng were his last name. The Chinese (and Hungarian and others') practice of placing last names first confuses most of us, but to my knowledge the magazine never formally acknowledged the error. Which means it may crop again, in the New Yorker and beyond.

Oi: if we were all just old-fashioned, fair-and-balanced ranters, we wouldn't have to fret about facts, or truth, at all.

April 22, 2008 3:58 PM |


For an ongoing conversation and news reports about arts journalism, go to the blog of the National Arts Journalism Program, here.

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This page contains a single entry by John Rockwell published on April 22, 2008 3:58 PM.

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