In a January 13, 1920, editorial-page feature, the New York Times ridiculed rocket scientist Robert H. Goddard for believing that a rocket could operate in a vacuum. Almost five decades later, the newspaper ate crow with this humorous and self-effacing correction:
‘Further investigation and experimentation have confirmed the findings of Isaac Newton in the 17th century and it is now definitely established that a rocket can function in a vacuum as well as in an atmosphere. The Times regrets the error.’
This degree of self-correction is laudatory in the specific but applied across the board would render daily newspapers unreadable, given the half-truths and falsities, festering in the compost of back issues. Most readers prefer that journalists collect today’s news instead of annotating to thenth degree every ancient mistake or miscue.
Yet some defective news stories moan like tormented spirits and wish for nothing more than to atone for their own errancy. Barton Gellman’s is one such story.
Gellman, whose coverage of the post-invasion search for WMD in Iraq deserves high marks in general, was careful not to overplay his VX/al-Qaida scoop: He didn’t state that al-Qaida received VX or any other nerve agent from the Iraqis and smuggled it through Turkey. His only claim was that the ‘Bush administration had received a credible report’ that such a scheme was in progress.
Gellman used multiple sources and characterized them as ‘speaking without White House permission’ for his story, which meant that it was not an official leak designed to bolster the Bush administration’s position. But 18 months after the Gellman story ran, we can safely assume that the ‘credible report’ was false. No Iraqi VX or nerve agent appears to have been transferred to al-Qaida, and nobody smuggled it through Turkey.
According to the author, Gellman’s story was