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Fact-Checking

February 7, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

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Two days ago, on its op-ed page, the New York Times had one of the most stunning corrections I’ve ever read. It had to do with an op-ed piece on the Heimlich maneuver by noted food writer Joan Nathan that had appeared the day before. I had seen Nathan’s article but didn’t pay it much attention, since I imagined that the headline (“A Heimlich in Every Pot) and the blurb (“Every chef should be able to save a choking victim. I should know.”) said everything that needed to be said. But the correction led me back to the article to see the two errors in context.

You won’t find the errors on line anymore. They’ve been corrected. I’ll describe them in a moment. But first let me say a few words about the incident that led to the article. Ezra Klein, noted blogger on health and food policy, wrote about it the next day, and I’ll quote his account.

Earlier tonight, Tom Colicchio saved Joan Nathan’s life.

Joan Nathan is a James Beard-award winning cookbook author best known for her books Jewish Cooking in America and The New American Cooking. She lives in Washington, DC. Which is how, presumably, she came to host a sprawling party for the Art.Food.Hope inaugural events benefiting DC Central Kitchen and Martha’s Table. It was, well, very DC. Bob Woodward was there, and so was Carl Bernstein. Jeff Toobin was in the corner and Rachel Maddow wandered through.

But it wasn’t just politicos. … Jose Andres presided boisterously over the proceedings, and some of his kitchen staff spent the night in the front yard roasting a lamb. Daniel Boulud worked the room, Najmieh Batmanglij — whose son turns out to be in Vampire Weekend, oddly enough — spooned Persian wedding rice onto plates, Dan Barber ambled about, Lydia Bastianich floated through a couple of times, and Tom Colicchio was pinned against the banister deflecting fans (there is grassroots anger over last week’s elimination). Which is how he ended up standing next to Nathan when a chunk of chicken went down her wind pipe.

I was in the next room concentrating on a plate of lamb sausage. Alice Waters flung herself into the banister behind me. She was shouting. “Does anyone know the Heimlich maneuver?” She ran back. This is not what you want to hear at a dinner party. Moreover, this is not what you want to hear in the room full of chefs. Don’t they teach the Heimlich at the CIA? Moments later, Waters appeared again. “It’s okay,” she breathed.

What happened in the interim was this: Tom Colicchio knew the Heimlich maneuver. And the Top Chef judge performed it. On Joan Nathan. So not only can Colicchio run multiple restaurants and anchor a cooking show and win five James Beard awards and cook for the rescure workers after 9/11, but he can save your life. Versatile guy. Think he’d be willing to manage the stimulus package?

Incidentally, I managed to chat with Colicchio and Nathan a bit later in the evening. Colicchio was modest. “I just happened to be nearby,” he shrugged. Nathan was more effusive, “He’s so strong!”

Here is the key passage from the original version of Nathan’s op-ed piece, in which she gives her own account of the incident.

… Famished, I wanted to try the Persian shish kebab with pomegranate sauce. The guests had been raving about it. In my enthusiasm I swallowed too large a chunk of chicken. For perhaps a minute, I stood there, praying that it would slide down my trachea. Suddenly it was stuck, I bent over to try to breathe, and two men, seeing my distress, slapped me on the back.

Another gentleman came up behind me, asking if I could talk. I shook my head. The next thing I knew he was placing his fists above my diaphragm and applying sudden, sharp pressure just below my rib cage to force the air out of my lungs in the Heimlich maneuver.

Um, well, okay, so maybe not everyone knows the difference between one’s lungs and one’s stomach. Maybe they don’t know that the air goes one way and the food another once your nose and mouth take them in. And maybe they don’t realize that the diaphragm will have a hard time forcing air upwards if you push above it. But what ever happened to fact checking? It’s not Nathan’s responsibility alone to get the facts right, is it? Here on the blogs, we’re on our own. But not on the NYT op-ed page, right?

The correction:

An Op-Ed article on Wednesday, about the Heimlich maneuver, incorrectly described the technique. The person administering the maneuver pushes under the choking victim’s diaphragm, not above it. The article also misidentified the part of the body food travels through to the stomach. It is the esophagus, not the trachea.

I’m glad we got that cleared up.

Categories: Food, Writing
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