William Kristol had to know he would be under a microscope when he accepted a columnist position at The New York Times late last year. As a well-known advocate of the Iraq war and other Republican causes, Kristol has formidable political opponents. Those opponents were shocked and angered that Kristol would be given a weekly column on the Times op-ed page. They wanted him fired before he had written a word, and their complaints prompted a response from the public editor at the Times.
Given that, you would think that Kristol would be particularly careful to get his facts straight in his pieces for the Times. Columns, after all, require solid facts to support their arguments. Errors of fact expose columnists to attack and damage their credibility. Editors can ensure that columnists meet the requirements of this part of the job. As an editor at The Weekly Standard magazine, Kristol should understand that.
So far, Kristol has stumbled on the facts. His first column had an attribution blunder. The latest mistake in Kristol’s work on the op-ed page should give editors pause about the quality of his work. The subject of his most recent column is Barack Obama’s church and the pastor’s comments about the war and other political issues. Kristol alleges that Obama was in attendance when particularly controversial remarks were made from the pulpit. Yet, as noted here, Obama was not there that day in July 2007.
To its credit, the Times has quickly added this note from Kristol to the top of the online version of the column:
In this column, I cite a report that Sen. Obama had attended services at Trinity Church on July 22, 2007. The Obama camapaign [sic] has provided information showing that Sen. Obama did not attend Trinity that day. I regret the error.
This is a step in the right direction, but it doesn’t go far enough because the error is still in the column. It’s an assertion that is central to Kristol’s argument, not just a piece of trivia. That part of the column needs editing as well, which is easy enough to do online.
Additionally, the column needs a rewrite for the wire services. Many newspapers run Times columnists a day or two after their works appear in the Times. It’s possible some newspapers will run the Kristol column as is, which will spread the error.
UPDATE: Keith Olbermann of MSNBC has named himself one of his nightly “Worst Persons In the World” for a goof related to the Kristol column. Earlier in the week, Olbermann had singled out Times executive editor Bill Keller for the Worst Person “honor” for not firing Kristol. Alas, Keller plays no role in the editorial pages and has no say on the hiring and firing of op-ed columnists. (Related post here.)