The other day I wrote about a New York Times article which described doctors taking the copyright to their patients' web postings as a means of preventing online criticism. Thanks to everyone who linked to or wrote about the issue, including Cory Doctorow at Boing Boing and Thomas Gideon at The Command Line.
After I wrote that post and Boing Boing linked to it, an interesting thing happened: Someone at The New York Times rewrote the article. Here is the original section of the article I quoted:
"The group Medical Justice, which helps protect doctors from meritless malpractice suits, advises its members to have patients sign an agreement that gives the doctor copyright over a Web posting if the patient mentions the doctor or practice."
After attention was brought to that article, here is how the Times rewrote it:
"The group Medical Justice, which helps protect doctors from meritless malpractice suits, advises its members to have patients sign an agreement that gives doctors more control over what patients post online."
As I mentioned in an update to my original post, obviously that's a big difference.
It's worth noting that while the article I quoted from was dated June 1, 2010, it was actually published mid-morning on
March May 31 (corrected, per comment below) on the NY Times website. That's where I originally read the article and what prompted my post about it. The next day, the print edition of the Times contained the article with the second version of the quote. Obviously someone was upset with the first version and demanded a change.
If the Times made a mistake by printing the first version, then a change would be warranted. However, they have given no explanation for the change or even run a simple correction notice. I have written to the Times' public editor Clark Hoyt about this matter but have heard no response.
While my journalism days were limited to editing a small newspaper in the South (The Tuskegee News), if I had tried doing what the Times has done here I'd have been fired. It doesn't matter if the Times made this change before their print edition hit the streets--they published a news article on their website, where it sat for at least 8 hours in the form I originally read. To then change the article without a notice is not only poor journalism, it calls into question the standards of the supposed newspaper of record. It also makes me suspect the original article is correct and that the Times accidentally revealed the trade secret to Medical Justice's "tool" for dealing with online criticism.
I have been faithfully reading the Times for two decades, and I hope they will explain this change. Otherwise they will have demonstrated that they are merely a fancy blog, willing to change and rewrite their reporting depending on which way the wind blows. And hell, that might even be an insult to blogs. After all, there are many bloggers out there who wouldn't rewrite their posts without an explanation.