What is Behind the New York Times’ Inaccurate Headline of Their Story on the Eviction of Beijing Artists?

[UPDATE: The New York Times issued the following correction to the online version of the story:

Correction: An earlier version of this article’s headline referred incorrectly to the police’s role in attacks on an artists’ community on the northern edge of Beijing. As the article made clear, the artists said that they were beaten by masked men and that the police did not intervene to stop them; the artists did not say they were beaten by the police.

There is no mention of why or how they made the mistake, but it is great to see the New York Times listening to all of us who raised this issue. One reader has offered a theory as to the source of the original headline in this comment.]

Early Monday morning 100 men armed with clubs attacked artists in Beijing’s Zhengyang Art Zone (UPDATE: this comment to the Guardian article provides a very informative background to the legal issues surrounding the development of the artist zones). The artists, with reason, had resisted eviction notices. Several of the injured artists, along with Ai Weiwei, briefly marched down Chang’an Avenue before Beijing police stopped them. I followed the updates of the protest on Twitter, read the initial Chinese blog postings about the early morning attack, and in no case did anyone say that the Beijing police beat them. Xinhua reports that today Chinese police arrested 18 people for the attack.

Andrew Jacobs of The New York Times wrote a good summary of the incident. Nowhere in his story did Mr. Jacobs write that Beijing police hit any of the artists or protestors. But the original headline the New York Times gave to this article, a headline I assume was written by an editor in the US and not by Mr. Jacobs, said “Beijing Police Beat Artists Protesting Evictions”. Several hours later, after realizing the facts did not fit the headline, the paper changed the headline to “Evicted Artists Protest After Attack in Beijing”. I could not find any notice or explanation of this change.

The reality is that while police did not participate in the beatings, it is very likely that the local cops knew in advance of the raid on the compound and had an interest in letting it proceed, within reason. But that is still not quite the same as saying the police beat the artists, and the New York Times has admitted their mistake by changing the headline.

I think the New York Times should explain why they wrote such an inflammatory and inaccurate headline, and disclose who wrote it. I also think that newspapers, at least in their online versions, should have a track change function so readers can see the changes made after the story has first been published online. Readers have a right to know what changes in a story, and why, especially from “papers of record” that will soon be charging online.

US-China relations have enough problems. It is distressing that there may be such clear bias within the New York Times editorial ranks (if there is a better explanation please tell us). This kind of coverage, from such an influential newspaper, furthers the miscommunications and misunderstandings that only exacerbate the legitimate and growing tensions within the US-China relationship.