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Hugo Chavez Doesn’t Think Noam Chomsky Is Dead After All

There’s a pretty fascinating Editors’ Note in today’s New York Times concerning Hugo Chavez and Noam Chomsky. (An Editors’ Note is the most serious of three types of corrections the Times runs; the other two types are called For the Record and Corrections.) You all probably all remember Chavez’s performance at the United Nations a couple weeks ago, during which he called President Bush the devil. Chavez also had strong praise for the leftist scholar Noam Chomsky and his book Hegemony or Survival, and the attendant attention shot the book to No. 1 on

Some newspapers had a good time ridiculing Chavez’s praise for Chomsky because Chavez apparently didn’t know that Chomsky is still alive. Here’s how the Times led its report: “At a news conference after his spirited address to the United Nations on Wednesday, President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela expressed one regret: not having met that icon of the American left, the linguist Noam Chomsky, before his death.”

But as today’s Editors’ Note in the Times makes clear, it wasn’t Chavez who flubbed; it was the Times: “In fact, what Mr. Chavez said was, ‘I am an avid reader of Noam Chomsky, as I am of an American professor who died some time ago.”

The dead professor Chavez was referring to, the one he regretted never meeting? John Kenneth Galbraith.

Here’s the Times‘s explanation for its mistake: “Mr. Chavez was speaking in Spanish at the news conference, but the simultaneous English translation by the United Nations left out the reference to Mr. Galbraith and made it sound as if the man who died was Mr. Chomsky. Readers pointed out the error in e-mails to The Times soon after the first article was published. Reporters reviewed the recordings of the news conference in English and Spanish, but not carefully enough to detect the discrepancy, until after the Venezuelan government complained publicly on Wednesday.”

It sounds to me like a very honest mistake. But it also suggests an interesting psychological element: we are probably more willing to identify and exploit a flaw in those whom we have already deemed very flawed.