October 7, 2022 - 7:15am

The New York Times has, yet again, issued a humiliating correction. Earlier this week, the paper ran a story about a Michigan-based elections software company becoming “a conspiracy theory target” over supposed “election falsehoods”. One example was the claim that Konnech, the company in question, was improperly sharing voter data with China. Yet just 24 hours later, the CEO of Konnech was arrested after investigators found it had stored voter data…in China.

The follow-up story by Stuart Thompson, a technology reporter, prompted a correction to the original story, also by Thompson. “After this article was published, the chief executive of Konnech was arrested in connection with an investigation into the possible theft of personal information about poll workers,” the Times correction noted, with considerable, if understandable, understatement.

Among media insiders, New York Times corrections are a source of endless hilarity, almost a byword for journalistic haplessness. The Times recently dragged the Queen into its endless Comedy of Corrections when it claimed the cost to taxpayers for Her Majesty’s funeral would come with a “hefty price tag” amid rising inflation. Observers swiftly noted that, using the Times’s own (erroneous) calculation, that “burden” would be 20 pence per household. Correction ensued. 

The Times issued a correction earlier this year after confusing $100 billion with $100 million and, just this month, for doing the same with 140 billion and 140 million cubic meters. And as Times editorial board member Mara Gay demonstrated, maths clearly is not the NYT’s strong suit either. On national TV, she claimed that Michael Bloomberg could have given each of America’s 330 million people one million dollars instead of spending $500 million dollars on his presidential campaign.

But the Konnech correction points to a much more serious problem than the Times’s inability to work with large numbers. At the heart of the paper’s first story about the company was an alarming claim that the “tiny” (read: innocent) company was being subjected to an onslaught of Right-wing conspiracy theories. 

That last term, conspiracy theory, has become a shibboleth of the coastal elite who run American media. By appending it to any claim, the lever pullers of power are able to marginalise not just the claim but those daring to make it. 

This was precisely the case with the lab leak theory, according to which Covid-19 emerged from the lab in Wuhan that studies coronaviruses. A month before a pandemic was even declared, the Times (along with the Washington Post, which published a nearly identical article the same day) came out swinging by calling the idea a conspiracy theory spread by “fringe” elements.

The reason the tactic works so well is that the Times fervently and prominently covers actual conspiracy theories. A Google search for “New York Times conspiracy theory” returns a host of wild, wacky and outright dangerous ideas, like the infamous QAnon quackery concerning ludicrous claims about cannibalistic paedophiles taking over America. 

As I wrote in The Gray Lady Winked, the publication plays a dangerous game by using this kind of epistemic weaponry, such as the tool at the heart of the 1619 Project, which is not just a “reframing of American history” but a redeployment of the common conception of truth. 

While the Times might fancy itself responsible enough to safely wield tactics like stamping unfavourable ideas with the dreaded “Conspiracy Theory” warning label, it won’t take long for other, less noble-minded institutions to do the same. Ultimately, when everything is a conspiracy theory, there is no longer any meaningful conspiracy — except those crafted by the theorists.