23 April 2006

Friends don't fact check friends


The NYT’s John Broder and Patrick Healy describe the origins of the life-giving friendship between Bill Clinton and Ron Burkle with a PR-perfect paragraph that should have set off the BS-meter:

The two men first met when Mr. Clinton was running for president in 1992 and touring neighborhoods in Los Angeles that had been torched during riots after the acquittal of several police officers charged with beating Rodney King. Mr. Clinton noticed that some supermarkets were still open, and asked why, his aides recalled. He was told that those stores were not burned because the owner, Mr. Burkle, treated his customers and employees fairly. Mr. Clinton asked to meet him.

Hmm. Too good to check? Not if you have NEXIS! At the time of the riots, Burkle owned a chain of markets called Food 4 Less. (He apparently didn’t acquire Ralph’s markets until 1994.) Here’s the lede paragraph of a June 1, 1992 story in the Orange County Business Journal:

Ron Burkle was in the middle of a meeting in a downtown Los Angeles hotel room when the Rodney King verdict came in last month. As word of the ensuing riots spread, television sets in the room were turned on. Burkle, chairman of La Habra-based Food 4 Less Supermarkets Inc., soon found himself watching intently. Buildings were burning. His buildings.

When the smoke finally cleared, Food 4 Less tallied its losses. The operator of the Boys’ Markets, Viva and Alpha Beta stores that provide inner city residents with most of their groceries had sustained some $ 25 million to $ 30 million in riot-related damage. At the height of the riots, 44 of its stores had been shut down. A handful were burned to the ground. Another dozen were so badly damaged that it would take from a month to several months to make them operational once more.

Is NEXIS too expensive for the NYT? Let’s all chip in and buy them a subscription. …

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But they were all numbers, right? So what's the big deal?


On April 20, the Times ran an article by Jennifer Steinhauer on the problems the City of Houston has experienced in coping with refugees from Hurricane Katrina. A principal theme of the article was that the federal government had failed to come through with needed or promised help:

Seven months after two powerful hurricanes blew through the Gulf Coast, elected officials, law enforcement agencies and many residents say Texas is nearing the end of its ability to play good neighbor without compensation.

[…] Today, however, the paper admitted in its corrections section that it had completely misrepresented the facts:

A front-page article on Thursday about strain on government services in Texas caused by hurricane evacuees misstated the number of evacuee children in Houston public schools and the amount of Federal aid the state has received. The most recent count, in late February, showed 5,475 students, not 30,000. The aid is $222 million, not $22 million.

As Junie B. Jones says: Boom! Do the math. The Times reported that the feds had contributed $733 per student. In fact, the feds have paid $40,548 per student. One can only surmise that the people who run the newspaper are beyond embarrassment.


Oh, that’s not quite all. Today’s paper included a second correction for another article, published the day after the Houston piece:

An article yesterday about criticism of the Small Business Administration’s response to the 2005 hurricanes misstated the value of loans the agency has provided to victims. It is $842 million, not $336 million.

One is left wondering where the NY Times actually gets its numbers from and why that source (ouija boards?) is considered reliable.

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