Peter N. Kirstein v. The New York Times: A Journey Through the Lofty Senior Editor Bureaucracy in Search of a Correction in Finkelstein Case

Dr Norman Finkelstein is an assistant professor of political science at DePaul University. He is applying for tenure and promotion in rank to associate professor and I was the first to report that the professor was encountering some obstacles. The following was my dogged but unsuccessful two-week effort in receiving a correction from the New York Times for crediting The Chronicle of Higher Education and not myself as the original source of the controversy. I suppose modesty would have thwarted such an effort yet as a card-carrying member of the blogosphere, I thought it exciting to compete with the “broadsheets” for appropriate attribution since my editorial staff and newsroom consists of one person.

1) On Thursday April 12, 2007 I was checking hits on my blog and noted one arrived from CollegeFreedom.org. I went to that blog and saw that it cited a New York Times article on the Finkelstein tenure controversy. It also noted that the Times story had incorrectly cited the Chronicle of Higher Education as its source.

2) I then went to the website of the New York Times to seek redress from this error with a correction. I encountered this announcement from the Times “Contact Us” link:

NEWS DEPARTMENT
To send comments and suggestions (about news coverage only) or to report errors that call for correction, e-mail nytnews@nytimes.com or leave a message at 1-888-NYT-NEWS.

3) I sent an e-mail. I called the number, left a message and my cell phone number.

4) A few hours later I receive a call from the New York Times Conrad Mulcahy. I explained the situation and he asked me to e-mail him. I told him I had e-mailed nytnews@nytimes.com. He said, despite his own newspaper’s contrary published statement, that that e-mail URL does not address corrections. Note under 2) it clearly states this was the e-mail source for a “correction.” Nevertheless, he gave me his direct e-mail and told me to send another e-mail describing the situation:

5) I sent Mr Mulcahy this e-mail:

From: Kirstein, Peter N.
Sent: Thu 4/12/2007 4:08 PM
To: mulcahy@nytimes.com
Subject: Correction: Patricia Cohen: Reporter on the Finkelstein Dershowitz Matter

Dear Conrad:

I am asking that Patricia Cohen’s article of April 12, 2007 on the Finkelstein tenure case be corrected. I was the original source and not The Chronicle for the Finkelstein tenure issue.

This is the NYTimes Story:

This was my initial revelation on April 1:

This link confirms my breaking the story: The Chronicle did not appear until April 2.

Kindly correct the story and cite me as the one who broke it on my blog.

Professor Peter N. Kirstein

6) I received this e-mail response from Mr Mulcahy of The New York Times.

From: Conrad Mulcahy [mulcahy@nytimes.com]
Sent: Thu 4/12/2007 4:19 PM
To: Kirstein, Peter N.
Subject: Re: Correction: Patricia Cohen: Reporter Cohen: Reporter on the Finkelstein Dershowitz Matter

Dr. Kirstein,

thank you for sending this email with your proposed correction. As you can see, I’ve received it and it looks like there were no problems with the transmission.

I will forward it to my boss, the corrections editor immediately and I expect that he will pursue it straightaway.

Again – thanks for collecting all of the info for us and I hope this will be resolved quickly.

Best,

Conrad Mulcahy

7) I acknowledged his e-mail:

From: Kirstein, Peter N.
Sent: Thu 4/12/2007 4:20 PM
To: Conrad Mulcahy
Subject: RE: Correction: Patricia Cohen: Reporter on the Finkelstein Dershowitz Matter

Thank you Mr Mulcahy. I guess I should have said the blog’s name was Peter N. Kirstein but that is readily available from the links. I appreciate this very much sir and I will look eagerly for its implementation. Peter

8) On Friday April 13, 2007, I noted there had not been a correction and I sent this additional e-mail to Mr Mulcahy:

From: Kirstein, Peter N. Sent: Fri 4/13/2007 6:49 AM
To: Conrad Mulcahy
Subject: RE: Correction: Patricia Cohen: Reporter on the Finkelstein Dershowitz Matter

Hello Mr Mulcahy:

I wanted to know if the New York Times was going to make this correction. I did not see it in today’s online edition. I know sometimes there is a delay of several days but since some corrections referred to the prior day, I thought I would ask. I would be happy to supply even more documentation that the Peter N Kirstein blog and not the Chronicle of Higher Education broke the Finkelstein story.

Thank you very much,

Peter N. Kirstein

9) The New York Times makes several corrections on Saturday April 14, 2007 in this error-plagued story but nothing on erroneously crediting The Chronicle of Higher Education as the provenance of this story. I did not receive a response from either Conrad Mulcahy or his editor who presumably was in charge of this deliberation. Yet some reply would have been appropriate from the Corrections editor or a staffer.

10) I returned to the New York Times website and found this announcement on their Corrections page:

Readers dissatisfied with a response or concerned about the paper’s journalistic integrity may reach the public editor, Byron Calame, at public@nytimes.com or (212) 556-7652. I sent another e-mail to the Times:

[Some links were edited.]
From: Kirstein, Peter N. Sent: Sat 4/14/2007 7:44 AM
To: public@nytimes.com
Subject: FW: Correction: Patricia Cohen: Reporter on the Finkelstein Dershowitz Matter

Dear Mr Byron Calame:

I notified the New York Times that they had made an error in an April 12, 2007 article by Patricia Cohen on the Finkelstein, Dershowitz case.

The error was in the second paragraph where the Chronicle of Higher Education was cited as the original source of the story. They were not. I was the first to break the story on my blog, Peter N. Kirstein. This appeared on April 1, 2007. In fact my blog alone broke story after story on this and was the first to publish major documents of the controversy. While I did not mention Dershowitz in my initial blog, that controversy has been known for years and since the story was about the tenure battle, I hope to convince you that I was indeed the one who broke that story.

The Chronicle web story did not appear until April 2, 2007. Please note that the word “circulating” is a link to my article which appeared the day before.

Also History News Network, a major online source for historians, noted my breaking this important story in their “Historians in the News Category.”

Another blog noted the error in the Times article as well on Thursday, April 12, 2007.

I called a toll free number and a Conrad Mulcahy returned it. We spoke about this issue and he suggested that I e-mail him a brief summary.

When I saw on Saturday, April 14, 2007 that corrections were made to the article, which contained numerous errors, but not the one dealing with the original source of the story, I was disappointed and shocked.

“An article in The Arts on Thursday about a dispute in which Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard law professor, is trying to block Norman Finkelstein, a political science professor, from gaining tenure at DePaul University in Chicago included an incorrect reference to DePaul that Mr. Finkelstein attributed to a dean there who opposes tenure for him. While DePaul is a Roman Catholic university, it is not Jesuit, and Mr. Finkelstein acknowledges that the dean, Charles Suchar, did not say that it is. The article also misstated Mr. Suchar’s middle initial. It is S, not E. (Go to Article)”

Mr Mulcahy indicated he would send this to his corrections editor. I e-mailed him and left him a message inquiring why my correction did not appear in Friday’s paper. Today, Saturday, corrections did appear but not mine. I did not receive a call or an e-mail explaining this and so I am appealing to you to rectify and correct this error. Kindly see the e-mail exchange below between Mr Conrad Mulcahy and myself.

I am a tenured full professor of history at Saint Xavier University. I also published a letter on Abu Ghraib with the Times.

My blog has been noted and linked by The Washington Post in the past and I do hope you will assist me in having my blog cited as the source for the Finkelstein tenure controversy. I noted you have a direct number but I thought I would initiate this process by e-mail. I would be happy to speak to you as well. I hope that I have provided clear and convincing evidence that I was the original source of this story and should have been credited appropriately.

Sincerely,

Peter N. Kirstein, Ph.D.
Saint Xavier University
Chicago, Ill.

11) I did not receive a response. On Wednesday April 18, 2007 I sent a follow up e-mail to the public editor:

From: Kirstein, Peter N. Sent: Wed 4/18/2007 2:09 PM
To: public@nytimes.com
Subject: FW: Correction: Patricia Cohen: Reporter on the Finkelstein Dershowitz Matter

Dear Mr Calame:

I am wondering if you have had an opportunity to examine my complaint about a lack of fairness with regard to attribution of a major story on the Norm Finkelstein tenure case.

I broke the story on April 1. The Chronicle, which was working on the story independently, which I have acknowledged, did not report the story until April 2. Since there can be no dispute of the evidence, could you as a matter of courtesy inform me why the New York Times has not corrected this obvious error?

By the way, while I realise it is unrelated, I linked the improper article that I had published for the Times.

Dr Peter N. Kirstein
Professor of History
Vice President Elect, American Association of University Professors (Illinois Conference)

12) I received shortly this response from the New York Times.

From: Public/NYT/NYTIMES [public@nytimes.com] Sent: Wed 4/18/2007 2:25 PM
To: Kirstein, Peter N.
Subject: Re: FW: Correction: Patricia Cohen: Reporter on the Finkelstein Dershowitz Matter

Dear Prof. Kirstein,

On Monday I sent your message to the corrections editor, who said that the newsroom is looking into the matter. If no correction has appeared by Monday, Aptil 23, and you haven’t received any explanation from the newsroom, please let me know.

Just so you know, this office generally acts as a sort of appeals process when it comes to corrections. Because of that, we generally wait until the newsroom makes a final decision about a possible correction before making any judgment.

Thanks for following up.

Sincerely,
Joe Plambeck
Office of the Public Editor
The New York Times

Note: The public editor’s opinions are his own and do not represent those of The New York Times.

13) I sent this acknowledgement:

From: Kirstein, Peter N. Sent: Wed 4/18/2007 2:45 PM
To: Public/NYT/NYTIMES
Subject: RE: FW: Correction: Patricia Cohen: Reporter on the Finkelstein Dershowitz Matter

Dear Joe Plambeck:

Thank you for your kind response. I will follow your instructions and appreciate the kind attention and dedication to fairness of the world’s finest newspaper.

Peter

14) When there were no corrections by April 23, 2007, I sent this e-mail to the Public Editor’s Joe Plambeck:

Dear Mr Plambeck:

You asked me to inform you if there had not been a Correction by Monday, April 23, 2007. For reasons that continue to baffle me, I have not seen a Correction of the Patricia Cohen article’s second-paragraph attribution of the Chronicle as the initial source of the Norman G. Finkelstein tenure case. Other corrections were made in this article but not the one concerning original source.

I have demonstrated with documentation that I broke this story on April 1, 2007.

I have demonstrated with documentation that the Chronicle first reported the story on their web edition on April 2, 2007.

I have demonstrated with documentation that the Chronicle linked MY article on the word “circulating.”

I have demonstrated that their other link to a blog with the word “are” also linked my article as the source. That source, Collegefreedom, stated it “heard” of the story from my blog and linked it on the word, “reports.”

I have demonstrated with documentation that the History News Network explored this question, and specifically stated I beat the Chronicle on this story.

I hope this merits for your readers a correction and that it will appear in your paper.

I appreciate your allowing me to pursue this matter.

Thank you and sincerely,

Peter N. Kirstein, Ph.D.
Professor of History
Saint Xavier University
Vice-President Elect, American Association of University Professors, (Illinois Conference)

15) I then received this “explanation” from Sam Sifton, Culture editor of the New York Times.

From: Sam Sifton [sifton@nytimes.com] Sent: Mon 4/23/2007 12:04 PM
To: Kirstein, Peter N.
Cc: senioreditor@nytimes.com
Subject: your letter

Dear Professor Kirstein,

You’ve asked for a correction on our article about the Finkelstein tenure fight, because we wrote that the Chronicle of Higher Education first reported the story when, in fact, you wrote about it on your blog before the CHE did. That appears to be true. However, we apply a somewhat different standard to a news report than to a person’s writing on a personal Weblog. The Times had absolutely no idea that you had written about the case and in any event had no way of knowing that you had. As a result, we see no reason to “correct” the article. I am sure that seems unfair to you. I am happy to discuss it further if you like. [My emphasis]

Sincerely,

Sam Sifton
Culture Editor
The New York Times

16) I then wrote this response to Mr Sifton.

From: Kirstein, Peter N. Sent: Mon 4/23/2007 2:52 PM
To: Sam Sifton
Cc: senioreditor@nytimes.com
Subject: RE: your letter

Dear Mr Sifton:

Thank you for your response. I do not understand your statement that since you had no way of knowing I had broken this story that you are not responsible for accurate reporting. Presumably the Times makes corrections if an error was made out of ignorance. So the fact that you claim you did not know I broke the story is even MORE reason to consider a correction.

Nevertheless, you saw the Chronicle web-story, not broadsheet, which linked my blog as the original source. I think given the importance of the Internet, that your failure to appropriately credit me for breaking the biggest story of my career in academia, is without justification. Simply put, the Chronicle first covered the story as a web article. You stated that since my breaking this story was on a Blog it does not merit appropriate attribution as opposed to a broadsheet. Are you saying that blogs, which are frequently quoted and used by the New York Times, are not even to be given credit versus ANOTHER web-based article such as the Chronicle’s.

Since you concede now that I broke the story, it seems you are moving the goal posts by stating, “Well yes you broke the story, but it was on a blog. Blogs are not worthy of attribution. But since the Chronicle broke it on their website and even cited your blog, they get the credit and you don’t.” This strikes me as unfair and frankly derisive of the hard work that bloggers do to provide timely and relevant information.

I assume you have seen all the documentation that I have laboriously and carefully provided both the corrections editor and the public editor.

I ask you to reconsider your decision and to give me the credit that I and other, but not all bloggers, deserve. Credit as in this instance for timely reporting, incisive analysis and a contribution to the public’s right to know.

Sincerely,

Peter N. Kirstein

17) When I did not receive a response from Mr Sifton, I appealed again to Joe Plambeck from the Public Editor’s office.

From: Kirstein, Peter N. Sent: Wed 4/25/2007 7:19 AM
To: public@nytimes.com
Subject: FW: your letter

Dear Mr Joe Plambeck:

I received an e-mail explanation from Sam Sifton concerning my complaint about the incorrect attribution of the Chronicle as the source for the Finkelstein-tenure controversy. His explanation is at the bottom and my response to him is directly below this. While he said he would be “happy to discuss” this in more detail with me, he did not respond to my concerns about his rationale for refusing to credit me as the source of the story. My understanding from your e-mail is that you are in a sense an “appellate court.” I would like to briefly appeal to your sense of fairness here.

Mr Sifton has acknowledged that I broke the story. I consider that a major concession on the part of the New York Times. I finally have received that in writing. Yet he states there are two reason he opposes a correction. One, the New York Times did not know I was the source. Second, even if they had, a “personal Weblog” would not merit attribution. I have two comments on this.

1) The fact that the New York Times did not know is immaterial. Of course I would presume when Patricia Cohen read the Chronicle online article, she must have seen the links including the one to my blog. Whether she did or not, I do not think a correction should be disallowed because your paper did not know in advance of its error. A correction is intended to set the record straight. That is the issue here it seems to me.

2) I find it quite curious that blogs, that are heavily used by the New York Times, would all of a sudden be relegated to a status unworthy of serious reporting. Mr Sifton has stated that I did not merit a correction, even while conceding I was the one who broke this important story, since it appeared on a “personal Weblog.” I must say my blog is not a daily diary of personal accounts but is a rather well-known and highly respected blog. Both the Chronicle and InsiderHigherEd.com used the blog to write their first stories on this matter.

Finally, I would like to know, who has the final word on this matter? If you do, kindly inform me of your decision. I appreciate the opportunity to pursue this matter and I hope I can get clarity on this situation and justice as well.

Sincerely,

Peter N. Kirstein

18) I received this final verdict from the Public Editor of the New York Times, Byron Calame:

From: Public/NYT/NYTIMES [mailto:public@nytimes.com]
Sent: Thu 4/26/2007 6:13 PM
To: Kirstein, Peter N.
Subject: re: your letter

Dear Mr. Kirstein:

I have reviewed your concerns and e-mails.

I read Patricia Cohen’s story as stating that The Chronicle of Higher Education first reported that Alan Dershowitz was trying to derail Norman G. Finklestein’s tenure bid by e-mailing dossiers to DePaul University faculty. I don’t read the second paragraph of Ms. Cohen’s story as stating that the Chronicle of Higher Education was the first to simply report that there was a tenure fight.

A Chronicle of Higher Education article publicly available on April 5 reported that Mr. Dershowitz had sent the dossiers to members of the DePaul faculty. The searches I have made of your blog do not turn up any descriptions posted prior to April 5 of Mr. Dershowitz sending dossiers to DePaul faculty members.

Thus, I don’t believe that a correction is warranted.

Sincerely,
Byron Calame
Public Editor
The New York Times

Note: The public editor’s opinions are his own and do not represent those of The New York Times.

19) My response to the decision of the New York Times not to issue a correction giving The Chronicle of Higher Education credit for a story I believe I clearly beat them:

From: Kirstein, Peter N. Sent: Thu 4/26/2007 6:30 PM
To: Public/NYT/NYTIMES
Subject: RE: your letter

Dear Mr Calame:

Thank you for your response. I think many sources construed her claim as more broadly focused on the tenure controversy. I am sorry that I could not convince you of this and that I did not prevail in this matter. I think it reflects well on the New York Times, however, that in its effort to be accurate, it devoted considerable time in examining this question. I got an unexpected lesson in moving in and around the bureaucracy of your paper that included a variety of senior editors.

Sincerely,

Peter N. Kirstein
Professor of History

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