Media Circus

How the New York Times got an inflammatory quote wrong -- big time.

By Jonathan Broder
Published August 19, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

it wasn't enough for new White House aide Sidney Blumenthal to be called a wife-beater by Internet gossip columnist Matt Drudge. Now the august New York Times has him labeled as a "slut."

The "slut" reference appeared Sunday in a Times story about President Clinton's recent hiring of Blumenthal, along with pollster Paul Begala, under the headline "Clinton Looks for Inspiration From the Left."

White House correspondent Alison Mitchell wrote that Blumenthal, a former journalist, "has had notoriously bad relations with many of his former colleagues in the Washington press who saw him as too close to the Clintons." Mitchell quoted the New Republic, for whom Blumenthal used to write, as commenting that perhaps now "he'll get his back pay."

Then, in the final paragraph (the "kicker" in newspaper parlance), Mitchell attributes another quote to the New Republic: "A beat is just an assignment but a slut is who you've become maybe."

The problem is the New Republic never made such a comment. It belongs to a fictional newspaper columnist named Frank Langley, who utters the remark in the play "This Town." The author of the play? Sidney Blumenthal. Adding absurdity to insult, the Times also garbled the quote -- in the play, Langley spoke of a "slot," not a "slut."

It's especially ironic that Blumenthal's play, produced last January by L.A. Theaterworks, is a biting satire about the foibles and often ludicrous self-importance of the Washington press corps. In the scene in question, Burton Burt, an anxiety-ridden White House TV correspondent, complains to the crusty Langley that his New York network bosses don't understand Burt and his ilk. Langley replies:

"Burt, have a stiff drink and lie down. Look, when I think of the world, I think of slots. Everybody has their slot. A slot is more than a beat. A beat is just an assignment. But a slot is who you become. Maybe after being on a beat for so long, it becomes your life. And after a while, you even forget it's about stories. It's about you. You are the slot. That's how it works. That's how it's always worked. The man becomes the work. Take my word for it."

Jerry Gray, the Times weekend Washington bureau chief, told Salon the misattribution to the New Republic apparently was the result of an editing error. He said Mitchell's original story had, in fact, included several paragraphs discussing Blumenthal's play, including the accurately attributed but wrongly transcribed "slut" quote. But Gray said Mitchell's Washington editor had cut all the play-related passages for space considerations before sending it on -- along with the outtakes -- to New York for a final edit. There, Gray said, another editor -- he did not say who -- apparently retrieved the "slut" quote and tacked it to the end of Mitchell's piece, along with the erroneous attribution to the New Republic.

In its Monday editions, the Times ran an "Editor's Note" in its corrections column that acknowledged the "editing error." It went on to explain that "the quotation was intended to serve as an illustration of (Blumenthal's) observations about some White House reporters." There was no apology from the Times -- nor was there an explanation for how an "editing error" transformed the word "slot" into "slut."

"That was me, that was my doing. I feel terrible," admitted Mitchell, reached by telephone at Martha's Vineyard, where she is covering the Clintons during their three-week vacation. Mitchell explained that she listened to an audio tape of the play and heard "slot" as "slut."

Then, in a comment that could have come right out of Blumenthal's play, Mitchell added: "Actually, when you listen to the quote, either word works." (A slut is more than a beat? What does that mean?)

Blumenthal declined comment on the Times' "error," except to repeat the remark he made to the newspaper's Todd S. Purdum, who wrote about the flap over Matt Drudge's allegations that Blumenthal had "a spousal abuse past" in the Sunday Times' Week in Review section. "I think that there's such a thing as integrity in journalism," Blumenthal said.

Blumenthal's lawyer, William McDaniel, was seeking clarification from Times Executive Editor Joseph Lelyveld about the "slut" reference. McDaniel is set to file Blumenthal's libel suit against Drudge later this week.

Both cases, say some critics, are inevitable consequences of a media culture in which virulent personal attacks against the president and his aides have become the norm.

"If the Washington Times had called Sidney a slut, I wouldn't care," said Democratic political consultant James Carville, who also writes a column for Salon. "But when the New York Times -- the newspaper of record, the newspaper that's supposed to set the standard for the rest of the media -- calls him a slut, then it's time to get really concerned about the attack culture that's out there today."

Jonathan Broder

Jonathan Broder is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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Matt Drudge The New York Times White House