On March 6, 1999, The New York Times reported that the moon was made of green cheese. Based on interviews with a number of sources and a lot of squinting at the night sky, the paper concluded that the Earth’s largest and only natural satellite consisted of coagulated and ripened curd of milk.
The Times’s coverage of this story attracted criticism from competing journalists and media critics, and from experts on the moon who contended that our reporting had stimulated an artificial scientific frenzy. The White House, too, condemned the Times, when the moon was later revealed to be a large, cold rock with very little cheese taste to it at all.
As a rule, we prefer to let our reporting speak for itself. In this extraordinary case, the accusations leveled at the Times have left many readers with questions about our coverage. In the days since the controversy was resolved, the paper has looked back at its reporting. On the whole, we remain proud of work that brought into the open the possibility of a “green cheese moon.” Our review found careful research that included extensive cross-checking and vetting of multiple sources, despite the resistance of a large (well, vast) segment of the scientific community. We found clear explanations of complex issues in the face of enormous obstacles—obstacles like how far away the moon is (2400 times more distant than Amagansett).
Certain aspects of our reporting remain unchallenged. Our assertion in a May 9 article that a full moon is “pretty” has been generally accepted. Likewise our discovery that “astronomy” and “gastronomy” rhyme.
But looking back at our coverage, we also found things we wish we had done differently.
We wish we’d made fewer editorial decisions while drinking in the spinning bar atop the Marriott Marquis. Whoa!
We wish we hadn’t been so distracted by that fetching intern from Sarah Lawrence and the cute way she’d ask for a byline.
We wish we’d quoted scientists, not Scientologists.
Passages of some articles also posed a problem of tone. In place of journalistic detachment, we often adopted a superior, sarcastic voice, or an annoying pose of world-weariness—like that narrator guy in “The Sun Also Rises.” We also occasionally adopted the sense of alarm contained in official reports, reprinting all their exclamation points.
The Times should have moved more quickly to open second lines of reporting, articles that would have answered important questions, such as the following:
If the moon is made of cheese, did the milk for it come from one very large cow, or from many, many cows? Where is this cow(s)? Does it sleep standing up?
Can cheese cause tides?
If the moon is made of cheese, why are Moon Pies made of marshmallow?
These second lines of reporting might have revealed salient facts, like our recent discovery that in 1969 an astronaut named Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. Television images from the moon’s surface revealed virtually no cheese. Armstrong also reported seeing no cheese. (Though it’s not like he wandered around the whole place, so who knows for sure, really.)
Even the best investigative reporting is performed under deadline pressure, with the best assessment of information available at the time. Working at a newspaper can be tough, what with the phones ringing and sad-sack career copy editors harping on dangling modifiers. Plus, no one here likes each other very much. The blame in the moon controversy lies principally with those who directed the coverage, though don’t go looking for us to fire ourselves. Nothing in this experience undermines our faith in our reporters, who remained persistent, fair-minded, and dashing.
We have dispatched a team of reporters, including that a-s–le one, to go back to the beginning of this controversy and do more reporting, drawing on new sources and the Book of Genesis.
Our coverage of the moon is not over.