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New York Times Violates (At Least) Ten Commandments of Journalism in Reporting Charlton Heston’s Death

So Charlton Heston, actor & gun-lover, died on Saturday night. The New York Times ran his obituary on Sunday, and since has had to issue a string of corrections that are so ridiculous that they make one wonder who on earth is driving the bus over there.

This ran today:

An obituary in some editions on Sunday and in some copies on Monday about the actor Charlton Heston misstated his given name at birth. It was John Charles Carter, not Charlton Carter. The obituary also referred incorrectly to the character played by Orson Welles in the film “Touch of Evil,”€ in which Mr. Heston had a starring role. The character, Quinlan, is a police captain, not a sheriff. And a list of Mr. Heston’€™s films accompanying the obituary on Monday misstated the relationship between two characters in the film Midway,€ in which Mr. Heston played a Naval officer. The characters, the officer’s son and a woman of Japanese descent, are hoping to marry; they are not already married.

They misstated his name?

This is in addition to what ran shortly after the obit was published:

A front-page obituary and a headline in some editions on Sunday about the actor Charlton Heston misstated his age and the year of his birth. He was 84, not 83, and was born in 1923, not 1924.

Evidently Heston may have been lying about his age, but that’s really where the crack reporting force at the Times might have done a touch of sleuthing. Or fact-checking.

Obituaries of people of this stature are, as we all know by now, written years in advance, and updated periodically. And with every draft and update comes editing. I don’t know how far in advance this obit was written or how many times it was rewritten or appended or the lede was changed or whatever, but it was probably at least five times, if not more. (The guy had cancer in 1999, and in 2002 confirmed he “announced that he had received a diagnosis of neurological symptoms ‘consistent with Alzheimer’s disease.’”) And somehow in all of those edits, plus the certain re-editing before Sunday’s publication, they got his name and birthdate wrong, as well as numerous details about the films he was in.

I tend to believe the Times when they report the news, and certainly I don’t feel personally offended by the totally sloppy inaccuracies in this obit. But, as a reader of the paper, as well as a writer, I wonder about the priorities of the Times‘ newsroom. Were the writers more concerned with style than accuracy, leaving it to editors to check his work? Do editors think checking facts is beneath them? Did copy editors have no time to read over a 2,400-word piece?

There’s a pathetic irony in the kicker for the piece:

“You never get it right,” he said in a 1986 interview. “Never once was it the way I imagined it lying awake at 4 o’€™clock in the morning thinking about it the next day.” His goal remained, he said, “to get it right one time.’”

2 Responses to “New York Times Violates (At Least) Ten Commandments of Journalism in Reporting Charlton Heston’s Death”

  1. Ginger Says:

    Totally brilliant. I am aghast.

  2. Melissa Kirsch: *Blog* Says:

    [...] Okay, far be it from me to obsessively follow the fascinating twists and turns of a dead actor’s constantly changing obituary, but come on, New York Times. Now it’s just embarrassing. [...]

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