NYT's ironic fact-check error

David Brooks's column today is vintage Brooks. In this column I will embed my own nostalgia for the time and place in which I grew up within a framework of someone else's compelling (if simplistic) narrative, and then offer sweeping, general prescriptions for our societial ills. The upshot of this particular instance of the genre is that "religion" (impossibly generalized) used to play a more "dominant role in public culture," and that such a role supported a "moral status system" that provided a check on the "worldly status system." Back in those days, when there were "competing status hierarchies," the "culture was probably more dynamic" and -- it goes without saying -- better.

It's a pristine specimen of Brooks. Along the way, he quotes from the sourcebooks of Judeo-Christian culture (Hebrew Bible and New Testament), which is what he means by "religion," in order to show the sources of our old "mores," before we became "secular." But then there's this doozy of a blunder:

In Corinthians, Jesus tells the crowds, “Not many of you were wise by worldly standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. ..."

Where to begin analyzing this unbelievable error?! Until proven otherwise, I'm going to go ahead and pronounce it the most ironic fact-checking oversight in the history of the esteemed New York Times.

To anyone formed in the Judeo-Christian heritage, the one so exalted by Brooks, it is self-evident that Jesus did not go to Greece or author 1 Corinthians. It's almost pre-rational: Christian kids learn things like this before they even learn that they're learning things at church. Jesus barely left Galilee and did not author anything. Moreover, this section of 1 Corinthians is about Christ crucified, which is unmistakable from reading a couple verses on either side of the quote. It makes me wonder, did Brooks pluck this quote from a Bible quote daily calendar? Or from a context-less collection of inspirational quotes? In any case, during a piece lamenting the declining influence of religion, Brooks reveals his own stunning ignorance of the Judeo-Christian sources that he mines for his arguments.

On to the fact-checkers: I have great respect for these folks at the Times. They have an extremely difficult job at what is the best and most fast-paced newsroom in the country. In my limited (one) experience with writing for the Times, I was in awe of how swiftly and thoroughly they worked.

But in this case, a group of fact-checkers -- multiple people -- read over this sentence, and not one of them stopped the error. What that reveals is profound: the staff at the Times is not as secular as we think they are. They are even more secular than we think they are.

To not know that Jesus did not speak to people in Greece would be like not knowing a basic fact about the most important figures of American history. Letting this error through would be akin to: charting Columbus's voyage on the Mayflower; assigning the wrong author to the Emancipation Proclamation; praising Malcolm X's "I Have a Dream" speech; recounting Kennedy's trip to China; or commemorating Bush's "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall" moment. All of those errors are unimaginable, as they should be.

And so, when we turn from Mr. Brooks to the fact-checkers, we find that his comical irony becomes a kind of tragic irony. The group of fact-checkers has embodied the very absence of Judeo-Christian culture bemoaned in the column itself.

 

H/T @TylerWS via Twitter

Michael Peppard is associate professor of theology at Fordham University and on the staff of its Curran Center for American Catholic Studies. He is the author of The World's Oldest Church and The Son of God in the Roman World, and on Twitter @MichaelPeppard. He is a contributing editor to Commonweal.

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