An Open Letter to the New York Times Regarding Paul Krugman

Update (5:03 pm): The Times responds. See the full response below.

Below is the full text of an email I sent Friday afternoon to Arthur Brisbane, Public Editor of the New York Times. In it, I detail a serious error made by Times columnist Paul Krugman in his Sunday column - documented at NB - and request that the Times correct the record, in keeping with its own ethics policies. If Mr. Brisbane or another member of the Times's staff responds, I will post the response as an update.

Even if the Times does correct the record, however, Krugman's error has already filtered into and throughout the media echo chamber. Others, such as MSNBC's Joe Scarborough, have repeated Krugman's false claim, illustrating the inevitable consequences of journalistic negligence.

Mr. Brisbane,

I write to alert you to a fairly egregious error in Paul Krugman's Sunday column, headlined "Climate of Hate". Mr. Krugman insists that the political right - far more than their ideological counterparts on the left - are guilty of using "eliminationist" rhetoric, which he defines as "suggestions that those on the other side of a debate must be removed from that debate by whatever means necessary."

Mr. Krugman provides a single example of "eliminationist" rhetoric from conservatives: a statement by Rep. Michele Bachmann that she wants her constituents "armed and dangerous."

Mr. Krugman took those three words completely out of context, and in doing so distorted Ms. Bachmann's actual statement. The full quote reads: "I'm going to have materials for people when they leave. I want people armed and dangerous on this issue of the energy tax, because we need to fight back."

Clearly, Ms. Bachmann was not stating her desire for a constituency that is literally "armed and dangerous." She used the phrase as a metaphor - she wanted her constituents "armed" with information so that they would be "dangerous" to cap and trade legislation and Democrats' energy agenda.

The wisdom of using martial metaphors in political rhetoric has of course been a subject of hot debate over the past week. But one need not take up either side of that debate to see that Mr. Krugman misrepresented Ms. Bachmann's actual statement. Whether or not politicians should use such metaphors is irrelevant. Mr. Krugman clearly implied that Ms. Bachmann wanted her constituents to literally bear arms in a political context. The full quote belies that implication.

Either Mr. Krugman did not make even the slightest effort to seek out the full quote and therefore was unaware that he was distorting Ms. Bachmann's statement, or he deliberately distorted it in an attempt to bolster his case that violent rhetoric is "coming, overwhelmingly, from the right." In either case, Mr. Krugman got it wrong and should correct the record.

The Times's ethics guidelines, which state that they apply to columnists as well as reporters, claim: "We correct our errors explicitly as soon as we become aware of them. We do not wait for someone to request a correction. We publish corrections in a prominent and consistent location or broadcast time slot." If the Times wishes to remain true to those guidelines, a speedy correction to Mr. Krugman's Sunday column should be issued.

Thank you.

Lachlan Markay

*****UPDATE: I recieved this email minutes ago:

Lachlan, thanks for writing. As you can imagine, we’ve received quite a few emails this week regarding Mr. Krugman’s column from Monday and we are looking into them accordingly. Since Mr. Krugman’s columns appear in the opinion section, he is granted a wide degree of latitude to express his opinion. We know his remarks have upset some readers, and these concerns are duly noted with our office.

Once again, thanks for writing and have a nice weekend.


Joseph Burgess
Office of the Public Editor
The New York Times

While I of course appreciate someone from the Times getting back to me, the response really does not address any point made in my initial email. Could the Times have received so many letters in response to that column (or other Krugman columns) that Brisbane's office had to draft a form letter on the topic?

I say that for two reasons. First, as I mentioned above, Mr. Burgess did not specifically address any point I raised. His language was extremely vague, and in no way specific to my letter.

In fact, and this is another reason I think it's a form letter, I touched on the issue of Times ethics policies as they relate to columnists vs. reporters. Here is the exact wording of the Times's ethics policy (linked above):

These guidelines generally apply to all members of our news and editorial departments whose work directly affects our content and its reputation, including those on leaves of absence. They include writers, reporters, columnists, editors, producers, editorial writers, photographers, picture editors, art directors, artists, designers, graphics editors and researchers.

The use of the qualifier "generally" notwithstanding, that passage is fairly unequivocal in lumping columnists in with virtually every other Times staffer as far as the ethics policy is concerned. Mr. Burgess's statement that Krugman "is granted a wide degree of latitude to express his opinion" has no bearing on my charge: that he was flat-out wrong, and needs to correct the record. The issue is not Krugman's opinion. The issue is the factual inaccuracy in his column.

Krugman is clearly in violation of Times ethics policies. We will see if the Times takes further action, but this response from the Ombudsman's office is wholly inadequate.

*****UPDATE 2: If you'd like to take some action - maybe let the Times know just how inappropriate Krugman's claim was and urge them both to do the right thing - head over to MRC Action.