New York Times Crying Over “Baby 81”

Just when you thought the media scandals might die down, the New York Times provides the blogosphere job security. It looks almost like Jayson Blair all over again. (I’ve tracked down the original reporting and linked it)

Lost in Translation

For the New York Times, it was the case of Sri Lanka’s “most celebrated tsunami orphan.” Networks broadcast how “nine” women fought over the baby who survived the island’s worst natural disaster.

The unprecedented media attention brought more misery and heartache to a young Tamil couple who survived the December 26 tsunamis, but ended up in jail trying to get back their only son Abilash amid an avalanche of mis-reporting.

The infant dubbed “Baby 81” could have been reunited much earlier if not for the media madness, according to the judge, the police and social service officials involved in the case.

Sri Lankan courts preferred to call him “Tsunami Baby” because the “Baby 81” tag itself was in doubt.

Even the much respected [sic] New York newspaper was caught up in the flood of mis-reporting, mis-interpreting and mis-translating. The paper said his “awful burden” was not in being unwanted, but in being wanted too much.

“So far, nine couples have claimed him as their own son,” the New York Times said in a story headlined: “For Tsunami Orphan, No Name but Many Parents.”

But, baby 81’s real burden was having too many journalists of the type of Jason Blair, the New York Times reporter who made up sensational stories and eventually was forced out of his job in 2003. [That’s gonna leave a mark. -ED]

If there is a Pulitzer award for embellishing, exaggerating, and outright lying and misleading in print, the coverage of “Baby 81” would merit top billing.

District judge, M.P. Moahaidein, on Wednesday (Feb 16) made it clear that there never, repeat never, were nine couples claiming the child as their own and only Junita and Murugpillai Jeyarajah had said they were the parents.

So how did the “Baby 81” make international headlines.

It had all the ingredients of a fascinating story. A “miracle” survivor. Nine parents fighting over him. Mothers threatening suicide. DNA tests. Court drama.

All based on one “fact” — that nine mothers were claiming the baby. How would this report make it to print without a single quote from any of the other couples claiming the child.

The New York Times said national newspapers had carried “almost daily narratives” about the baby’s fate. Wrong. The national press jumped on the band wagon much later.

“The hospital has been so mobbed that for a while, the staff hid the baby in the operating theatre every night for his own protection,” the Times said. Wrong again.

“Only one couple claimed the child. No one else has come forward to make a legal claim,” chief inspector Wijetilleka told reporters on January 28. “We are convinced they are the parents.”

He was proved right after a DNA test insisted on by doctors and a lawyer who claimed to represent a district organisation for child protection.

Could it possibly be that nine couples honestly believe Baby No. 81 to be their flesh and blood?,” asked the New York Times. “Could it be that childless parents are looking for a boon amid the disaster?”

“Could it be that a photogenic baby boy has inspired a craving that a girl would not have? All these theories circulate on the streets of Kalmunai.”

It is amazing that even after the experience of Jason Blair who cooked up quotes and even created people to suit his stories, the New York Times did not think it fit to talk to at least one more couple said to be claiming the child.

When the couple and the baby arrived separately in Colombo for the DNA tests, sections of the media were still trying to keep up a lie, or nine lies.

One of the nine mothers” turned up for a test, said one media organisation suggesting eight others could pop up any time. Some tried to cover their mistakes by simply saying “eight others had claimed the baby earlier.”

“Since the start, there has been only this couple claiming the baby as theirs,” Judge Moahaidein said in his 22-page order handing the child over to the Jeyarajahs on Wednesday. “There have been no nine couples as reported by the media.”

In the end, what was at least sloppy and at worst fraudulent reporting from Somini Sengupta at the New York Times (and others) brought “more misery and heartache” to the parents and the child, and caused their separation to be extended several days.

The question now is, what is the Times going to do about it?


UPDATE First, I’ve updated the links to be archive friendly.

Second, from the weird way stories go out over the wire and get reedited and get new headlines, it looked like Sengupta wrote a whole series of articles. Now it looks like it was just 1 or 2. Perhaps if it was only a story or two, maybe dropping the “Blair Bomb” was a tad premature. -Maybe- But with this many horrific errors, resulting in tragic real world results, no matter the number of stories, the Times should have someone review the work and see how this many errors were allowed to get thru.

And after Rick Bragg, Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass, perhaps a review of previous work would be in order.

UPDATE 2: Leave it to Michelle Malkin to round up other questionable coverage from Mrs. Sengupta. Maybe the “Blair Bomb” wasn’t so premature after all.

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  1. bullwinkle February 20, 2005
  2. Paul February 20, 2005
  3. Rod Stanton February 20, 2005
  4. Jinx McHue February 20, 2005
  5. julie February 20, 2005
  6. Paul February 20, 2005
  7. -S- February 20, 2005
  8. -S- February 20, 2005