Is the NYT even going to bother to correct itself?

Two days ago, the New York Times editorial page ran a piece that included a clear error. In an editorial titled “Locked, Loaded, and Looney,” the Times editors wrote:

It is an eminently good thing that the anti-suicide measure would require medical specialists to keep track of veterans found to be high risks for suicide. But that’s to care for them as human beings, under that other constitutional right — to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

As any first-year law student can confirm, there is no constitutional right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The phrase comes from the Declaration of Independence, not the Constitution. This is elementary stuff. The Times’ error is a very basic and obvious one, which never should have gotten by any competent fact-checker.

Of course, the error was quickly caught by legions of bloggers. Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit wrote,

THE NEW YORK TIMES’ EDITORS think that the phrase “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is in the Constitution. But then, they believe many things that are demonstrably untrue.

Other conservative bloggers, including the Weekly Standard blog, made hay of the mistake as well. Technorati shows dozens of incoming links to the NYT editorial, many of them mocking its constitutional error.

It’s two days later now, and I’m starting to wonder: Isn’t the Times going to run a correction of some sort?

Given the press at places like Instapundit and Weekly Standard, they have to be aware of this issue (don’t they?). And yet the corrections page has yet to acknowledge that any mistake was made.

The error itself was bad. The Times should have caught it. Still, I can understand that errors will be made at a large paper (though I wish mistakes weren’t this obvious).

But I’m having a hard time understanding the Times’ failure to acknowledge the error and run a correction. What on earth could explain that? Has the paper really not even noticed the problem (incompetence stacked on incompetence)? Do the editors just not care about the error (hubris)?

What could possibly be going on?

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40 Responses

  1. KipEsquire says:

    “What could possibly be going on? “

    Um, “Labor Day”? People do take the Friday before a Monday holiday off. I would imagine that corrections have to be cleared by senior editors, who simply might not be around.

    Just a non-conspiratorial guess.

  2. David says:

    My guess is that the Times is not sure it’s really an error. The term “Constitutional” loosely means “embodying the principle of the Constitution”. Under that loose definition, the words of the Declaration of Independence are more-or-less “Constitutional.”

  3. David Becker says:

    It’s hubris, pure and simple. The editors of the Times, a group of arrogant elitists if ever I saw one, have always had peculiar and bizarre interpretations of what the Constitution says and means, including a full-throated contempt for the ideas of individual liberty inherent in it. To them, it is so pliable that an additional phrase or two here and there is acceptable; that is, the Constitution is whatever the editors of the NYT says it is.

  4. David Becker says:

    It’s hubris, pure and simple. The editors of the Times, a group of arrogant elitists if ever I saw one, have always had peculiar and bizarre interpretations of what the Constitution says and means, including a full-throated contempt for the ideas of individual liberty inherent in it. To them, it is so pliable that an additional phrase or two here and there is acceptable; that is, the Constitution is whatever the editors of the NYT says it is.

  5. It’s like that scene from Animal House after being busted on double secret probation the Belushi character said….”Germans bombed Pearl Harbor” – I guess the NY Times thought ‘forget it, we are on a roll’

  6. layerguy says:

    They won’t correct it. They don’t believe that it’s possible to have an opinion that needs “correcting.”

    To their way of thinking … people have opinions that are based on incorrect facts all the time. They think this is part of the quilt of human nature.

    They also believe that you are a peon, as evidenced by the fact that you are not important enough to write for the New York Times Editorial Page.

    You are a mere speck, and they cannot be bothered explaining their clearly superior thinking to you because it would be a superfluous exercise. Why lift you up to their level?

    Look … just read the opinions, do what they say, and shut up, OK?

    Nobody invites a know-it-all to the Hamptons.

  7. Nate Oman says:

    Who reads the NYT anyway? Especially when there are better newspapers and much superior sources of news and analysis.

  8. Just Some Guy says:

    It’s a relatively unimportant error, albeit an elementary one. They may yet correct it, and if so, they should be praised. But I suspect that at the NYT, the editors still believe that blogs don’t matter enough for the NYT editors to notice. They figure this error will be forgotten, much as Dan Rather figured the font on that memo was a technical detail that most people would never hear about and would never comprise proof of forgery. It’s an old story.

  9. Chris says:

    I don’t think the editorial is that bad. We have (qualified) rights to life, liberty, and property under the 5A & 14A, and “the pursuit of happiness” could be taken as just a reformulation of the right to property–I gather that’s what Jefferson was doing to Locke in the first place. The NYT didn’t put the words in quotation marks.

  10. Mark says:

    The Labor Day excuse is the most ridiculous of all. I work for a major farm equipment manufacturer. If we told a customer with a problem “…sorry, but we’ll get back to you after Labor Day.”, we would lose that customer. Thus, so should (and will) the NYT continue to lose readers.

  11. Richard of Oregon says:

    When will NYT correct their constitutional error? The answer my friend is right there in the sacred document, for it says “four score and seven years….”. After 4 Yankee games and a long stetch of time the Grey Lady will confess to her errors.

  12. TMLutas says:

    Of course life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are constitutional rights, they’re a penumbra of the 9th and 10th amendments, not that the NYT would want to breath life into *those*.

  13. Art - SF Bay Area says:

    It’s the narrative, stupid. Fact = the hobgoblin of little minds.

  14. cartographer says:

    Guys, if you are going to be pedantic you really need either to know your stuff or at least consult a dictionary. Had the Times capitalized the word as “Constitution” you might have had a point. But the Oxford American Dictionary has this as the primary meaning of “constitution” (lower case: “a body of fundamental principles . . . according to which a state or other organization is acknowledged to be governed.” Are the noble words of the Declaration fundamental principles of American government? The Times thinks they are, and so do I. No error at all.

  15. Kaimi says:

    Interesting comments so far.

    Becker, layer, I appreciate your comments, but I think the issue can probably be addressed without gratuitous attacks on the NYT. In fact, those kinds of comments make the discussion look like something it’s not. I’m not out to destroy the viability of the Times or of newspapers. I do think they just need a correction.


    I hope your comment was meant as irony, because “fourscore and seven years” is _not_ in the Constitution (or the Declaration of Independence, for that matter).

    Cartographer, Chris, David,

    Interesting response. Of course, there are constitutional guarantees that life and liberty will not be taken without due process. However, using the phrase together clearly indicates citation to the Declaration of Independence.

    Also, it is true that under some definitions, the Declaration of Independence could be considered part of a constitution in some sort of vernacular sense. (Though, really. Constitutional right, in a vernacular sense? Who uses that term?)

    The problem is that the editorial clearly addresses a real constitutional right (albeit one the Times editors don’t like much) in its first half. The editorial focuses on the Second Amendment. Any switch in mid-editorial to a vernacular discussion of constitution, without clear labeling, is deceptive.


    Labor Day is an interesting idea, except that the corrections page has already corrected errors from both Thursday and Friday. Clearly, _someone_ is still at the wheel.

  16. AFFA says:

    “IANAL, but…”

    The Constitutional status of the Declaration of the Independence is ambiguous. It is part of the United States Code. The Supreme Court has even treated it as a legal document occasionally (Inglis v. Sailor’s Snug Harbour off the top of my head, and there have been a few others).

    I can see why both the left & right wouldn’t want to give it any legal authority, and that has been the majority view. I just think blanket statements of “The DoI has no legal authority” are incomplete.

  17. even more pedantic says:

    First, at what point will folks stop being amazed that the NYT refuses to confess error (e.g., its Nifong coverage) in a disinterested way? That’s not what it does. It will confess error to the extent that it benefits the paper. They’re just like all the other powerful, prestige-chasging organizations (business, government) in the world. Not worse than other organizations, but no better either. Stop holding them to some idealized standard.

    Second, they could make light of the error and argue that they meant “constitutional” in a loose sense, as a commentor above suggested.

    Third, that would still leave us with what I consider so important: the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is not implied or exprssed in our constitution. It’s not even promulgated by the Declaration of Independence. It is recognized as a natural law right that is self-evidence, accessible, and intelligible to all sentient humans, regardless of its recognition or non-recognition in any set of positive law. Under that theory, it trumps the constitution.

  18. mockmook says:

    Any fair reading of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence would show that the Founders were protecting God given rights from the Government.

    The editorial implies that the government is supposed to make us all happy, free, and alive (hello Roe vs. Wade).

    So, a correction is very much in order.

  19. Art - SF Bay Area says:

    The NYT cited life, liberty and pursuit of happiness as “constitutional right” (enforceable at law without any legislative enactment) In the NYT’s fact-immune narrative this probably is synonymous with “Declaration of Independence right” — at least until some DofI “right” was asserted that the paper disagreed with.

  20. Adam W says:

    cartographer: By suggesting that the New York Times considers our “constitutional” rights to include those of the Declaration of Independence, then aren’t you suggestion that the New York Times agrees that certain of our “constitutional rights” are God-given (or at least “Creator-endowed”)? I’d be surprised to see the NYT take that view of our “constitutional” rights.

  21. Adam W says:

    Nate: Who reads the WSJ or Economist anyway? Especially when there are better newspapers and much superior sources of news and analysis!

  22. jgreene says:

    The NYTimes? I stopped purchasing the NYTimes 15 years ago. I only refer to it “online” for amusement and to confirm their continuing slide into irrelevance.

  23. Funny that yesterday the NY Times corrected an editorial about the cartoon South Park (to state the correct number of years it had been on the air) but can’t be bothered to correct a fundamental error with a statement about the Constitution.

    It says way too much about the Times’ priorities.

  24. Greg says:

    You guys are all wrong. The reason the NYTimes used the phrase from the Declaration of Independence in the first place was to distract our attention from the fact that in the editorial, the editors are arguing for the invasion of the privacy of so-called “high risk” veterans. How’s that ‘liberty’?

  25. Ivy Shoots says:

    There is nothing to correct. The editorial does not claim the exact phrase appears in the Constitution, it says the elements of the phrase are constitutionally protected rights, which they are, as any first year law student can confirm.

    The 14th Amendment says, “No state … shall deprive any person of LIFE, LIBERTY or property without due process of law.” That’s two of the three elements expressly enumerated, so there can be no argument but that Wenger’s claim “there is no constitutional right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is at least 66.666% false.

    As for the pursuit of happiness, the US Supreme Court has expressly cited it (as well as life and liberty) as a constitutionally protected right in several court opinions over the years. Meyer v Nebraska, e.g., cites “the right of the individual…generally to enjoy those privileges long recognized at common law as essential to the orderly PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS by free men.”

    Better luck next time. : )

  26. “…never should have gotten by any competent fact-checker.”

    Newspapers do not have fact checkers. See my post here:

  27. cartographer says:

    My friends, I forgive your pettifogging. Taking a narrow, legalistic, Philadelphia 1787 view of the American constitution is in a sense what conservatism is for. That the pursuit of happiness — and equality, too — are constitutional rights, the birthright of every American, is a liberal thing; you wouldn’t understand. But I must say the Times doesn’t do much to enlighten you. I don’t want to be in the position of defending the quality of that editorial. The judgement is correct, but oh the reasoning! A step or two above sloganeering, at best. And the style is crude.

  28. Art - SF Bay Area says:

    The NYT stated the vets have a …”constitutional right” … If they do, the vets can go to court and get the benefits under discussion without enabling legislation from Congress. Adding in terms not used in the editorial, like “pursuit” and “protected” is transparently in service of the NYT in its patronizing of and misleading of vets as to their rights.

  29. anon says:

    And, for the benefit of those who read Co-Op regularly, this deluge of commentary is apparently courtesy of Instapundit. Perhaps because the post is about Instapundit?


    p.p.s. Thanks for making stats tracker open.

  30. The Times is worried that if it prints a retraction a whole bunch of readers will read the retraction who never saw the original. This new group will think that the Times makes mistakes. So, by not compounding the original mistake, the Times increases its reputation for not making mistakes.

  31. Kerry says:

    Were the writer to have used a less recognizable phrase from the Declaration of Independence, we might understandably be laughing at the “oops”. But “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are as identified with a particular document as are “Four score and seven years” identified with a particular speech. Were I running a paper, factual rigor would demand high accuracy. The variety of “how could they miss that one?” speculation in the comments here says that, to me, the Times writer really doesn’t know its origin.

  32. anon says:

    In response to Ivy Shoots: You reference the 14th Amendment, but the focus of the article was on Congressional action related to veterans. The 14th does not apply; rather the relevant section for your argument would be the 5th Amendment Due Process guarantee which applies to the Federal Government.

    Even with this adjustment your argument is not very persuasive; I agree with the posters who argue that the editorial author is sadly mistaken. What a “Fist year law student” knows or does not know is not relevant here either. The subtext in all this discussion is that constitutional rights are frankly pretty hard to discern sometimes, even for lawyers. Constitutional rights seem to be often misrepresented in the media and consequently misunderstood by the public. The Times has some civic responsibility to maintain a minimum level of accuracy with regard to sources of law and the limitations placed on our government by the Constitution.

  33. Ivy Shoots says:

    In response to “anon:”

    I apologize if I wasn’t clear enough. I did not defend the opinion of the sadly mistaken author; that may account for why my “argument is not very persuasive.” My arguments are generally far more persuasive when I actually make some.

    You, and others here, have confused two issues: 1) whether vets have a constitutional right to a suicide watch list, and 2)whether a constitutional right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” EVER exists.

    The first is a matter of opinion, while the second is a matter of historical record. As I pointed out, the due process clause expressly protects life and liberty, while many Supreme Court opinions over the years have reaffirmed that these, as well as the pursuit of happiness (as described by the court), ARE CONSTITUTIONALLY PROTECTED when recognized.

    That is enough to refute Wenger’s sweeping claim that “there is no constitutional right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” He doesn’t specify “in this particular case;” he makes an absolute statement which must apply to EVERY case or it is false.

    The “Corrections” page addresses wrong facts, not wrong opinions. In order for a factual correction to be warranted here, it must be true that there is no constitutional protection of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness EVER, that the elements of that phrase must not appear as protected rights in the Constitution (two of the three do), and the three elements must have never been cited by the Supreme Court as a constitutionally protected right in any case (they all have been).

    As for first year law students, if you find them irrelevant, scold Mr Wenger for bringing them up; I only repeated his own second paragraph opening.

  34. Kaimi says:


    Excellent. Next time I write a brief, I’ll make sure to rely on the constitutional right to the pursuit of happiness. Let’s see how far it gets me.

    Sure, something kinda-like what the Times says can be constructed, with enough effort, out of other parts.

    For instance, you can go to the Fifth Amendment and find due process protection for life, liberty, property. We all know this.

    The Times doesn’t seem to be doing this, though. Take a look at the Times language:

    “But that’s to care for them as human beings, under that other constitutional right — to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

    Not rights. Right. A single right, apparently, to a package that includes life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And as I note in the post, such a unitary right does not exist in the constitution.

    Why try to salvage the Times’ obvious error?

    Apply Occam’s Razor. Sure, it is theoretically possible that a Times writer decided to reference the Fifth Amendment, copy part of it out (life and liberty) while leaving out other parts (property), obliquely refer to dicta from Meyer v. Nebraska, and for some reason combine those ingredients and call it all one big singular-form constitutional right.

    Or, maybe they mixed up the documents.

    Which do you think happened?

  35. Ivy Shoots says:

    Mr Wenger writes, “As any first-year law student can confirm, there is no constitutional right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The phrase comes from the Declaration of Independence, not the Constitution. This is elementary stuff.”

    “The phrase comes from the Declaration of Independence, not the Constitution.”

    Variations of the phrase predate 1776, from John Locke (“life, health, liberty, or possessions”) Adam Smith (“life, liberty, and the pursuit of property”), and Samuel Johnson (“the pursuit of happiness”).

    The elements and sentiments of the phrase were not new or unique to Jefferson or to the Declaration of Independence. Their inclusion in the Constitution is to be expected, and there they are.

    What “correction” is needed to the statement “[there is a] constitutional right…to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” apart from it possibly being wrongly applied to the case at hand?

  36. Vinegar Hill says:

    Anon’s 12:46 PM post today is, of course correct.

    It’s not surprising that NYT epigoni would defend the Grey Lady.

    At least one of three assumptions has to be accepted, for the NYT & its true believers to be right.

    (1) In the Fifth & Fourteenth Amendments’ use of the term “life, liberty, or property”, which is closer to the original Lockean formulation than Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence phrase quoted by the NYT as part of the Constitution, the word “property” equals “pursuit of happiness” “Um, ‘property’; that word you keep using; I do not think it means what you think it means.”

    Any posit that the fact that Tom Jefferson in his phrasing changed Locke’s word “property” to “pursuit of happiness”, an entirely more expansive concept means that “property” somehow equals “pursuit of happiness” & thus arguing that the NYT’s egregious misquote is not a misquote at all does not pass the old Hee Haw test. Unless one’s arguments are based on the “whatever” school of logic.

    Heck why not argue that the Preamble to the Constitution includes the phrase “general welfare”, which term = “pursuit of happiness”?

    (2) The Constitution incorporates all the terms of the Declaration of Independence, including “pursuit of happiness” (“Ontology Recapitulates Philology”). This claim is contradicted by the fact that many secular humanists, secular progressives have used the fact that that the Constitution makes no reference to God as a trump card in their war against religion in the Public Square, & all you Yahoos out there, you poor benighted religious fundamentalists nevermind that that the D of I does refer to a Deity. (BTW the Constitution does mention “our Lord”; see Art VII!) As Sydney Carlton might say about NYT writers, editors & alleged fact checkers: “Father, Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” What, Jesus said that? Nevermind, Sydney recapitulated Christ’s dying on the cross!

    (3) Meyer v. Nebraska (“that [XIV Amendment]liberty [denotes the right of the individual]…generally to enjoy privileges, essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness of free men”) is proof that the NYT is “not exactly wrong” in using the exact phrasing from the D of I as if it were in the Constitution. This, if not exactly obfuscating, is tortured weaseling. Legally speaking, if one, in order to be au courant, has the right to add McReynold’s penumbra or emendation (can never quite get ‘em straight) of Jefferson’s “pursuit of happiness” to The Fifth & Fourteenth Amendments’ wording, shouldn’t he (the NYT writer) say “life, liberty, including the pursuit of happiness, & property”? Or here just “pursuit of happiness” since no one is allegedly taking Life or other liberties away?

    What did Churchill say: “blood, toil,including devotion to duty, tears, sweat, & victory”? Well no…. But he did say all those words. Well yes, but just not in one pithy packed phrase.

    For some reason a scoffing at such NYT inanities often results in charges of “wingnut”, “fanatic”, & “pedantry”. Or a dismissive “understandable”, “close enough”, & now, legally acceptable, or the cant phrase, “whatever”. Or perhaps a deconstructionist, Humpty-Dumpty approach to language. Politics aside, I suggest that the battle is worth continuing for the sake of clarity of thought.

    Of course if Bush, Reagan, or some other Republican had said “constitutional right — to life, liberty and the ‘pursuit of happiness’ ”, the MSM, & the comedians, Stewart, Leno, & Letterman, as well as our Mr. Shoots would be all over them.

    QED, the NYT needs better fact checkers & should be embarrassed. Neither will happen.

    In any event, rather than stonewalling, perhaps the NYT can publish a note with all the defenses made in this thread & say “in our opinion our statement was not wrong”.

  37. Uncle Ralph says:

    The New York Times is not American.

    The Constitution can be amended by Americans. The Declaration of Independence cannot. The Constitution, like the Articles of Confederation before it, is disposable by Americans. The Declaration is not. It defines American.

    The Declaration founds as axiom that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, and that to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men. To be American is to hold these truths to be immutably and undeniably self-evident.

    The Constitution is the blue-print of one such organization “instituted among Men” to “secure these rights.” Government is no more the author of these certain unalienable Rights than one’s wristwatch is the author of time. To pretend otherwise is to spit into patriots’ blood since Lexington Green and so excommunicate from the very definition of American.

    What Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said of “human dignity” in a recent speech can be said in paraphrase of the Declaration’s “certain unalienable Rights”:

    “They are not a government’s grant to its citizens nor mankind’s gift to one another; they are God’s endowment to all humanity.”

    Having a ZIP code or holding a U.S. passport indicate only that one is a recognized occupier of space here. Holding oneself proudly to an allegiant understanding of the Declaration is sine qua non American.


  38. Ivy Shoots says:

    Vinegar Hill,

    Baselessly accusing your own Miss Shoots of partisan hypocrisy is uncalled for. You don’t know me well enough to even know my gender, yet you believe you can detect nefarious, left-wing political motivations behind my ability to distinguish factual errors from wrong opinions, and legal briefs from op-eds? If you are going to call me the epigoni I will be forced to call you a peasant with a pitchfork. It ain’t my idea of debate, but when in Rome…

    I ask you to point to any evidence in my posts that liberal hypocrisy and slavish loyalty to the NY Times are to blame for my opinion that the corrections page is for factual errors only. Not for retracting opinions expressed in editorials with which you happen to disagree, or for catering to ever-vigilant nitpickers who conspire to rationalize holding the Times’ op-eds to a unique standard of 0% poetic license, while giving a pass to far more tortured hyperbole in op-eds in The NY Post, The Washington Times, and The Wall Street Journal almost daily.

    For instance, did you know that al Qaeda is NOT actually a branch of the Democratic Party? You’d never know from checking the corrections page of The Washington Times! And you accuse ME of hypocrisy? Freud would call that projection.

    I appreciate the arguments being made — that the author said “right” and not “rights” is particularly profound — yet I can’t lose sight of the fact that this is an opinion piece, and the guy was just giving his opinion that the vets have a constitutional right to this health care. If you and he ever get the chance to argue this before the Supreme Court, we’ll see who’s right. Until then, it’s moot, which is why you need to content yourselves with raising torches and pitchforks against his sloppy shorthand and sentence structure.

    Had the Times put “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” in quotes, I would agree it suggested the exact phrase appears in the Constitution. I would agree that it validates your call for a correction.

    But it didn’t, it only claimed those three separate things are constitutional rights, and all three HAVE been recognized as such by the Court. So apparently your position is that the corrections page must point out that there should have been an “s” at the end of the word “right,” and that the Times regrets this omission. Keep up this good and important work.

  39. Bob Loftus says:

    The Constitution protects many rights, not all of which were penned in the first ten amendments. That was not the purpose of the Constitution at all. All of free man’s un-alienable, God-given rights are set aside and protected from governmental interference whether written or not. There’s a whole lot of commenter’s here that need to exercise a little critical thinking while knowing the voluminous written record surrounding the formation of our Constitution and subsequently the bill of rights. You are no longer free, any of you, because you have forgotten what freedom is. Wake up!

  40. Art - Bay Area says:

    NYT well knows that the vets have no “constitutional right” to the benefits that Congress is considering and well knows that the benefits bill is not flawless. But by choosing the term “right” instead of “benefit” NYT aids defense-weak Democrats by fostering outrage in vets against Republicans who are supposedly denying them not of a legislative benefit, but of a “constitutional right” that Democrats recognize. Regrettably, “Newspeak” is becoming the first language of the once-great NYT and its weakening numbers suggest that notice is being taken.