Making a 13-Year Correction to an Obituary
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
Many newspapers have gotten diligent about publishing corrections and, as we've noted on this program before, the obituary page of The New York Times publishes quite a few interesting ones. But a correction in Monday's New York Times is extraordinary even for this punctilious age. It reads as follows: `An obituary on January 6th, 1993, about William G. McLoughlin, an emeritus professor of history and religion at Brown University, misstated the date and cause of his death. Professor McLoughlin died on December 28th, 1992, not on January 4th, 1993. The cause was colon cancer, not liver cancer. The article also misstated the location of his World War II military service. It was at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma, not in Europe. The Times learned of the errors through a recent e-mail message from a family member.'
Now the very idea of a 12-year-old correction piqued our curiosity and it led us to St. Louis, where Martha Everatt is the managing editor of Missouri Life magazine, and she is the daughter of the late William G. McLoughlin.
Martha Everatt, you sent the e-mail to The Times?
Ms. MARTHA EVERATT (William G. McLoughlin's Daughter): I sent the e-mail because it had been bothering me that there were errors in his obituary for, you know, all of these 12, 13 years. And as a journalist myself and because The New York Times is the newspaper of record, I wanted to make sure that everything was accurate on that. And particularly because my father was a historian, I know that details and dates are very important.
SIEGEL: And yet you waited 12, 13 years to do it.
Ms. EVERATT: It had been bothering me all this time, but I suppose, you know, in the first few years when you're caught in the throes of a sudden death, this really wasn't a priority. But one of the things that led me to do this was the recent Terri Schiavo case that was in the news, and I had been actually writing out my living will. And so I was kind of thinking along those lines about death and the importance of someone's life. So I just decided since I had some free time and was at my computer that I would e-mail The New York Times.
SIEGEL: Thoughts of mortality just drove you to send that correction in. How did The Times get so many things wrong way back then?
Ms. EVERATT: I don't know where they got the idea that my father was in Europe during World War II. I have no clue where that came from. The cause of death I think might have been an error on my family's part when the reporter called. The funny thing is, though, that Charles Strum, who's the obituaries editor at The New York Times who I worked with on this, was the one who actually pointed out to me that The Times had the date of his death wrong, which none of us in the family had even noticed.
SIEGEL: Well, were you met with enthusiasm about this correction straight off or did you ever get the impression that perhaps there might be some statute of limitations on errors in obituaries?
Ms. EVERATT: Well, I worried about that. In my e-mail I actually said I don't really expect you to make a correction. Certainly I didn't expect it in print, but I did want them to correct the electronic database for anyone going back to look at those records. But I got an e-mail the very next day. I sent my e-mail on July 10th. On July 11th I had an e-mail from obituaries editor Charles Strum, and he said right off, `Thank you for contacting us. We'll be glad to correct the error.'
SIEGEL: Martha Everatt, thank you very much for talking with us about the correction of your father, Professor McLoughlin's, obituary from 1993.
Ms. EVERATT: Well, thank you.
SIEGEL: And, as we heard from Martha Everatt, her e-mail to The New York Times went to Chuck Strum, who is the obituary editor.
And, Chuck Strum, January 1993 to July 2005--is that about the longest waiting correction you know of at The Times?
Mr. CHARLES STRUM (Obituary Editor, The New York Times): It's the longest one in my experience here, which is 26 years. But because you asked, I looked up the records, such as they are, and I found that in July of 1969 we corrected an article written 49 years before.
SIEGEL: In 1920?
Mr. STRUM: Correct. January 13th, 1920. Shall I read this to you?
SIEGEL: Sure, why don't you give us some of it anyway.
Mr. STRUM: The summary here would say that on January 13th, 1920, an editorial page feature of The Times dismissed the notion that a rocket could function in a vacuum and commented on the ideas of the rocket pioneer Robert H. Goddard. And then it ends by saying, `Further investigation and experimentation have confirmed the findings of Isaac Newton, and it is now definitely now established that a rocket can function in a vacuum as well as in an atmosphere. The Times regrets the error.'
SIEGEL: This was published in July of 1969, not coincidentally.
Mr. STRUM: Not at all. It happens that that was the day after Apollo 11 left for the moon.
SIEGEL: So 49 years for a correction of...
Mr. STRUM: Forty-nine years, yes, but, hey, we're willing to do it.
SIEGEL: And as for an obituary, 12 years still pretty close to a record in that department?
Mr. STRUM: As far as I know it is.
SIEGEL: Was there any consideration of just saying, `Look, you know, there's a statute of limitations here. It's been in the paper for 12 years, so be it'?
Mr. STRUM: Not really. We made the mistake. We correct the error and, as Ms. Everatt knows from our exchange on the e-mail, it's both been in the paper and it is now in The Times data bank.
SIEGEL: Well, Chuck Strum, of The New York Times obituary page, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. STRUM: Thanks a lot, Robert.
SIEGEL: And we also spoke with Martha Everatt, who is the daughter of William G. McLoughlin who, for the record, died on December 28th, 1992.