NY Times letters to the editor can’t say the the paper is ‘wrong’

Alexis Levinson Political Reporter
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The New York Times editorial board is never wrong. Or at least, they won’t print anything that says they are.

Eugene Volokh, a professor at UCLA law school, wrote on his blog The Volokh Conspiracy Tuesday about a friend of his, Andy Pincus, who had written a letter to the editor at the New York Times about a court case in which he was currently working on as a lawyer.

“The Times is just wrong,” his letter to the Times said, in part. The paper wrote him back, asking if an edited version of his letter, with that phrase removed, would be ok. He asked if he could say instead, “The Times is incorrect,” to which The New York Times responded: “We cannot say ‘incorrectly’ because that is the province of corrections, in which case I would forward the letter to the corrections editor and it could not be considered as a letter.”

Eileen Murphy, New York Times vice president of corporate communications, explained the reasoning behind the policy.

“Our policy is that if we get a letter asserting that we made a factual error, we check to see if that is the case,” she told The Daily Caller via e-mail. “If we were in error, we publish a correction. If not, then we don’t. It is of no value to our readers to have someone say “this fact is wrong” in a letter without telling them whether that is indeed the case.”

“People are not only free to disagree with us, they are encouraged to do so,” she emphasized. “That’s one of the main purposes of the Letter section. But if they want to say, we are factually wrong, that is another matter and it’s a matter handled by the newsroom and the corrections desk.”

Saying that someone is “wrong” is a turn of phrase often used to convey strong disagreement. Since opinions are subjective, TheDC pressed, saying an editorial is wrong doesn’t mean that the person is saying there was a factual error.

“An editorial is, at its core, the opinion of our editorial page, so it’s difficult to call an editorial wrong,” Murphy countered. “You may not agree with it, but that’s different than something being wrong.”

By comparison, the Washington Post’s opinion policy gives writers of letters to the editor a little bit more wiggle room.

“Generally, we try to give readers as much leeway as possible, including to criticize us, short of allowing them to say something that is factually wrong,” said Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt. “If someone declared our editorial policy to be ‘wrong,’ and it was clear they meant our opinions are wrong-headed, we would allow that.”