I hate to break it to Thomas Lifson of the American Thinker, but an article in The New York Times that corrects an error in one previously published story does not equal “an exposÃ© of the utter breakdown of editorial standards.” Just the opposite, actually.
The article in question is one I discussed here last April, about draconian abortion law in El Salvador. The error that was corrected concerned a woman named Carmen Climaco. The article says she terminated a pregnancy at 18 weeks’ gestation; El Salvadoran courts contend she delivered a full-term baby and strangled it. The Times acknowledges the court records invalidate Climaco’s claims, but it stands by the rest of the article.
I looked at the article; Climaco is not mentioned until the closing paragraphs of a very long article, and deleting those paragraphs doesn’t diminish the article as an indictment of El Salvadore’s inhumane abortion laws. But for the sake of this discussion here is the offending section:
In prosecutors’ offices in El Salvador, as in prosecutors’ offices anywhere, longer sentences are considered better sentences. “The more years one can send someone away for,” I was told by Margarita Sanabria, a magistrate who has handled several abortion cases, “the better it is for the prosecutors.” She cited this motivation to account for what she has observed recently: more later-term abortions being reclassified as “aggravated homicide.” If an aborted fetus is found to have been viable, the higher charge can be filed. The penalty for abortion can be as low as two years in prison. Aggravated homicide has a minimum sentence of 30 years and a maximum of 50 years.
The issue of proving viability after an abortion is a tricky one, of course. There is no legal standard. But many of the people I talked to in El Salvador, including TÃ³pez, the prosecutor, said there was a rule of thumb: if an aborted fetus weighs more than 500 grams, or a little more than a pound, then you can argue that the fetus was viable. When I mentioned this to Judge Sanabria, she said she wished she had known more about the rule before. She recalled one case, that of a 20-year-old mother named Carmen Climaco, whose abortion of a fetus estimated at 18 weeks had been recast by the prosecutor as aggravated homicide. The judge admitted that if she had known this rule of thumb, she might not have sent the case to trial. “I feel bad about it,” she said.
But the case did go to trial, and the prosecutor won a conviction for aggravated homicide. At trial, the evidence included lifting Climaco’s fingerprints from the fetus, which was found under her bed. The prosecutor’s accusation was infanticide by strangling.
The women’s prison where convicted murderers are sent is in the outer district of Tonacatepeque. I visited it in January. It’s an old, creaky facility that inspires the kind of dread that comes of seeing concertina wire and much-painted cinder blocks, made all the creepier by a paint choice of baby-boy blue. Inside the first gate is a neutral area. It’s filled with almond trees that provide a flickering shade on a hot winter afternoon. All the women are kept in a deeper jail, walled off inside. Through a small window, I could see an open area crisscrossed by laundry lines and arrayed by different women lying around smoking.
I was there to see Carmen Climaco. She is now 26 years old, four years into her 30-year sentence. She has three children, who today are 11, 8 and 6 years old. We talked about them for a while. Since she was the only person in the family who worked, her children’s financial situation is precarious; they now stay with their grandmother. Climaco said she lives for their visits, which are brief and come only twice a month. She was dressed in red jeans and a white polo shirt. We sat with an interpreter in the half-shade in green plastic yard chairs. Climaco had a paper napkin with her that she folded and folded into a familiar-looking pill. She had light brown hair, and occasionally a smile steadied her trembling lips.
“I became pregnant at a time when my smallest child was in the hospital,” she said. “I never thought I could get pregnant because I had been sterilized. Suddenly I saw two doors shutting at the same time. There was nothing I could do. My mother said she’d toss me out of the house if I got pregnant.”
Her story came out in fits and starts. She said that she was innocent and had never done anything illegal. Then she said, “I keep asking God to pardon me for what I’ve done.” She said that the day it happened, she felt dizzy and collapsed at home. She woke up covered in blood. “I stood up and it felt like something fell out of me.” It took her a while to understand just what had happened. “I put my hand on its throat to see if it was moving,” she said, “which is why my fingerprints were found on its neck.”
I spent the better part of an hour watching Carmen Climaco’s face, listening to her whimpering pleas to Jesus Christ for forgiveness and tiny prayers to me to believe in her innocence. Like anyone serving time in prison, she has inhabited the details of her story to the point that they no longer sound true or false. She has compressed her story into a dense, simple tale of innocence â€” she just woke up covered in blood â€” to hold up against the public accusation of baby-strangling. I kept looking at her face, incapable of seeing the innocent girl she described or the murderer the prosecutor sent to prison. The truth was certainly â€” well, not in the “middle” so much as somewhere else entirely. Somewhere like this: She’d had a clandestine abortion at 18 weeks, not all that different from D.C.’s, something defined as absolutely legal in the United States. It’s just that she’d had an abortion in El Salvador.
It turns out, however, that trial testimony convinced a court in 2002 that Ms. Climacoâ€™s pregnancy had resulted in a full-term live birth, and that she had strangled the â€œrecently born.â€ A three-judge panel found her guilty of â€œaggravated homicide,â€ a fact the article noted. But without bothering to check the court document containing the panelâ€™s findings and ruling, the articleâ€™s author, Jack Hitt, a freelancer, suggested that the â€œtruthâ€ was different.
The issues surrounding the article raise two points worth noting, both beyond another reminder to double-check information that seems especially striking. Articles on topics as sensitive as abortion need an extra level of diligence and scrutiny â€” â€œbulletproofing,â€ in newsroom jargon. And this case illustrates how important it is for top editors to carefully assess the complaints they receive. A response drafted by top editors for the use of the office of the publisher in replying to complaints about the Hitt story asserted that there was â€œno reason to doubt the accuracy of the facts as reported.â€
Apart from the flawed example of Ms. Climaco, Mr. Hittâ€™s 7,800-word cover article provided a broad and intriguing look at a nation where the penal code allows prison sentences for a woman who has an abortion, the provider of the procedure or anyone who assisted. His interviews with doctors, nurses, police officers, prosecutors, judges and both opponents and advocates of abortion offered revealing personal perspectives on the effects of the criminalization of the procedure.
Note that the author, Jack Hitt, did not exactly pull the Climaco story out of his ass. He’d been tipped off by a magistrate who had handled the case, and then he interviewed Climaco herself. In the article he did express some reservations about the veracity of Climaco’s story. Calame says Hitt had asked the magistrate for the court records but was told they’d been archived and would be difficult to retrieve, so he let it drop. Calame’s apology suggests that Hitt had been scammed by the magistrate and Climaco, who used the Times story to solicit help with an appeal of her case. Once the Times editors did look at the court records (which, in truth, had not been hard to obtain) they were persuaded that the Climaco story was bogus. So they corrected it.
Of course, it’s also possible Climaco is innocent and the court records are lies, and that the Times is caving in to pressure from anti-abortion activists, the El Salvadoran government, and/or our own State Department. Calame continues,
Complaints about the article began arriving at the paper after an anti-abortion Web site, LifeSiteNews.com, reported on Nov. 27 that the court had found that Ms. Climacoâ€™s pregnancy ended with a full-term live birth. The headline: â€œNew York Times Caught in Abortion-Promoting Whopper â€” Infanticide Portrayed as Abortion.â€ Seizing on the misleading presentation of the articleâ€™s only example of a 30-year jail sentence for an abortion, the site urged viewers to complain to the publisher and the president of The Times. A few came to me.
Note that it doesn’t bother Lifson that LifeSiteNews.com’s headline “New York Times Caught in Abortion-Promoting Whopper” was a lie, since the article did not, in fact, promote abortion.
The care taken in the reporting and editing of this example didnâ€™t meet the magazineâ€™s normal standards. Although Sarah H. Smith, the magazineâ€™s editorial manager, told me that relevant court documents are â€œnormallyâ€ reviewed, Mr. Hitt never checked the 7,600-word ruling in the Climaco case while preparing his story. And Mr. Hitt told me that no editor or fact checker ever asked him if he had checked the court document containing the panelâ€™s decision.
Lifson of American Thinker makes much of the fact that Hitt had used a translator who had done consulting work for Ipas, an abortion rights advocacy group. But then he turns around and says “The Times apparently became aware of the lie it had published at least a month ago” because it was getting complaints generated by LifeSiteNews.com. Apparently LifeSiteNews.com is such an unimpeachable source the Times doesn’t need to take the time to fact check it.
Calame writes that he received an English translation of the court records on December 8, and after reading them he conducted an internal investigation to find out who had dropped the fact-check ball. The subsequent correction article was given a prominent spot inside this Sunday’s Week in Review section, under an approximately 30-point headline. Lifson writes,
Worst of all, even after the proof of the lie, the paper’s editor and publisher refuse to publish a correction or even an editor’s note. The paper is therefore content to let the lie stand, officially. If it were interested in honest reporting, it would be duty-bound to issue a retraction, one as prominent as the original lie.
Lifson is, of course, hallucinating.
Calame says the Times should have obtained the court records before publishing the story, and of course they should have. But the truth is that very few newspapers or magazines in the U.S. would have bothered to go to the trouble, given that the writer was someone known to be a good reporter who had two corroborating sources — the magistrate and Climaco. Maybe in the distant past things were different, but newspapers and other news bureaus are trimming staff to stay afloat financially, which in turn makes the news reporting process a lot more precarious.
That’s why I say that Calame’s article is not “an exposÃ© of the utter breakdown of editorial standards,” but is rather an affirmation of what the standards should be. Now, if only the New York Times editors had been that forthright about Judith Miller’s Iraq War stenography, I might actually respect them.
Update: Talk about righties who can’t read — this one links to Lifson under the head “The NY Times publishes another lie that it will not admit to,” when Lifson’s story is about editor Calame’s admission of the error. Jeez louize, that’s stupid. You wonder how these people get on the Internets. Another poor dumb-as-a-doorknob mouth-breather complains that the “New York Times Falsified Abortion Article.” Look, children, the writer got scammed, the Times got scammed, the Times admitted the error. You might want to read the other 4,300 or so words of the story that the so-called right-to-life scammers couldn’t find a mistake in.
Update update: Righties are playing their usual game of discrediting an entire body of work because they found one flaw. John Hinderaker’s post makes it sound as if Hitt’s entire article rested on the Climaco story, when in fact the Climaco story was a very small part of it; essentially an anecdote used to add some punch to the ending. Hinderacker wrote, dishonestly,
Hitt alleged that in El Salvador, women convicted of abortion can serve long jail terms; the story’s opening paragraph said that “a few” women had been sentenced to 30 year jail terms for obtaining abortions. Hitt featured one such woman, Carmen Climaco.
In fact, El Salvadoran law provides for sentences as long as 50 years. From Hitt’s article:
Today, Article 1 of El Salvador’s constitution declares that the prime directive of government is to protect life from the “very moment of conception.” The penal code detailing the Crimes Against the Life of Human Beings in the First Stages of Development provides stiff penalties: the abortion provider, whether a medical doctor or a back-alley practitioner, faces 6 to 12 years in prison. The woman herself can get 2 to 8 years. Anyone who helps her can get 2 to 5 years. Additionally, judges have ruled that if the fetus was viable, a charge of aggravated homicide can be brought, and the penalty for the woman can be 30 to 50 years in prison.
Hitt could not find out how many women were serving such senteces. However, he did verify that women are being prosecuted and sentenced for receiving abortions.
Nationwide, after the ban came into effect in 1998, the number of legal cases initiated nearly doubled, according to a study published in 2001 by the Center for Reproductive Rights. Today the number of abortion cases investigated each year averages close to 100, according to Luz McNaughton and Ellen Mitchell, policy consultants with Ipas, an abortion rights advocacy group in Chapel Hill, N.C., who gathered the statistics for a study to be published later this year by the American Journal of Public Health. In 2004, the most recent year for which any statistics are available, there were 93 investigations of people associated with a clandestine abortion. In 2003, there were 111 investigations; in 2002, there were 85. (El Salvador’s population is 6.5 million, roughly that of Massachusetts.) The vast majority of charges are brought against the woman or the provider. In a few cases, the boyfriend or mother or someone else who has helped out is also charged. Typically, the woman can avoid prosecution altogether if, after she is arrested, she names the provider.
When the woman is first detained, the form of custody can vary. Wandee Mira, an obstetrician at a hospital in San Salvador, told me that she had seen “a young girl handcuffed to her hospital bed with a police officer standing outside the door.” In El Salvador, a person accused of a major crime is typically held in jail in “preventative detention” until the trial begins. TÃ³pez, who said she had prosecuted perhaps 10 or 15 abortion cases in the last eight years, said that she took the severity of the case into account and sometimes argued for “substitutive measures instead of jail,” like house arrest, while the accused was awaiting trial. My impression was that TÃ³pez was emphasizing such relative leniencies as house arrest instead of detention, as well as suspended sentences for women who report the abortionist, because, like most people, she was uncomfortable with the inevitable logic that insists upon making a woman who has had an abortion into a criminal. Even Regina de Cardenal, whose group was instrumental in passing the ban, could not quite square the circle.
“I believe the woman is a victim,” de Cardenal told me. “The criminals are the people who perform the abortions.” When pressed about the fact that the law she helped pass does treat the woman as a criminal, she said: “Yes, it’s part of the law of our country. Because the woman has murdered her baby â€” and that’s why she is sent to jail. But I believe that the woman who is sent to jail remains a victim of the abortion doctor, the abortionist, who knows exactly what he is doing.”
But you know how the rightie brain works, or doesn’t work, as the case may be. From now on, in rightie lore, no women are ever prosecuted at all for abortion in El Salvador.