Inside The New York Times’ crossword correction on coal

By Thomas Frank | 01/13/2022 06:46 AM EST

Pedestrians walk past The New York Times building in New York City.

Pedestrians walk past The New York Times building in New York City. The newspaper this week issued a correction for a crossword clue that “implied incorrectly that coal is a viable source of clean energy,” according to the paper. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

It is the Vatican of crossword puzzles, the apotheosis of wordsmithery and the arbiter of correctness in language and meaning.

But yesterday, after a withering social-media assault, The New York Times published a correction to a crossword clue that, editors conceded, “may have implied incorrectly that coal is a viable source of clean energy.”

The 58-word correction was vindication for scores of environmentally minded crossword puzzlers who assailed the Times on Twitter — and an insult to “clean coal” proselytes who maintained the clue was accurate and the correction was capitulation.

It’s also a minor humiliation for Will Shortz, the legendary New York Times puzzle editor who, according to the puzzle constructor, changed her original clue and inserted the error over her objection.

“They got pounded by their base,” former coal lobbyist Fred Palmer said in an interview. “For the Times to actually embrace coal is a mortal sin — and I’m Catholic.”

The Times’ backtracking shows the fading acceptance in the Biden years of the once-popular phrase “clean coal.” The Energy Department has abolished the Office of Clean Coal and Carbon Management established under President Trump, who romanced about “beautiful, clean coal.” And the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity recently changed its name to America’s Power.

Sara Hastings-Simon, a University of Calgary physicist and Times crossword aficionado, said there was “such a violent reaction” to the crossword clue because promises of “clean coal” have been used “as this delay tactic, as a way to say we don’t need to do anything else” to address climate change.

“The fact that that filtered down to something like The New York Times crossword puzzle is an example of how these approaches by industry are ultimately successful at influencing our discussions and approach toward climate,” Hastings-Simon said in an interview.

The controversy began Sunday night after the Times posted the Monday crossword online and Molly Fisch-Friedman, an analyst at the environmental group Climate Nexus, solved the puzzle and began fuming about 47 across.

The clue: “Greener energy source.”

Answer: “clean coal.”

Fisch-Friedman, who has been doing crosswords since she was in middle school in New Jersey, was incredulous that the Times would imply that coal is an environmentally friendly energy source. She originally thought the answer was “wind power.”

"This really demonstrates how easy it is for misinformation to spread," said Fisch-Friedman, who is 27.

Logging on to Twitter on Sunday at 7:38 p.m., Fisch-Friedman wrote, “Okay I am sorry for the spoilers for Monday’s @nytimes crossword but clean coal is not a ‘greener energy source.’ Do better.”

Within hours, thousands of Twitter users had liked or reposted Fisch-Friedman’s tweet, including former New York Times environmental writer Andrew Revkin, who linked to a Times column he wrote in 2008 calling “clean coal” technology a “pipe dream.”

“It’s tough to navigate this terrain because the language around climate and cleanliness is really such a hot button,” Revkin said in an interview yesterday. He is currently director of the Initiative on Communication Innovation and Impact at Columbia University’s climate school.

Other Twitter users were outraged.

“Wonder how much they got paid to slip that one in there,” one Twitter user wrote.

“Manchin’s favorite crossword,” wrote another.

“Wtf???? Eugene T Maleska would never had written that,” someone else wrote referring to the revered former Times puzzle editor whom Shortz replaced in 1993.

On Tuesday, foxnews.com joined the pile on, reporting gleefully that social media users “banded together to agree that clean coal was not actually ‘clean’ and shamed the Times for the suggestion and leaving a dirty taste in their mouths.”

By this time, Lynn Lempel, the puzzle constructor, began to hear about the controversy and wrote a note on Wordplay, the Times’ online crossword column, blaming “the editing team” for changing her clue. Lempel has been constructing puzzles since the 1970s as a freelancer and is paid $500 to $750 for weekday puzzles accepted by the Times.

In a telephone interview yesterday from her home in Daytona Beach, Fla., Lempel said that when she submitted her puzzle to the Times in December, the clue she used was “dubious term for a greener energy source.”

But when the Times sent the edited puzzle back to her, the clue was changed to “greener energy source.”

“You have to realize that editors change clues all the time. That’s not uncommon at all,” said Lempel, who is 75.

On Dec. 29, Lempel sent an email to the Times puzzle editors questioning the change.

“If you Google ‘clean coal,’ there seem to be a lot of questions as to whether it’s actually clean. That’s why I used the qualifier and I wonder if it should stay in there,” Lempel wrote.

On Jan. 3, Times editors replied and said Lempel had raised “a thoughtful point about clean coal” but that Will Shortz “still finds the clue better as it is without any hedging.”

“I was disappointed,” Lempel said yesterday. “I thought it should have been the way I had it.”

Jordan Cohen, the Times’ executive director for communications, would not answer questions about the crossword and said in an email, “We’re not planning to comment beyond the correction.”

Times news articles used the phrase “clean coal” only once in the past year, in referring to the former name of America’s Power, a Nexis search shows.

The correction reflects the uncertain state of carbon-capture technology that coal advocates say would remove most planet-warming gases spewed by coal-fired power plants.

“While it is possible to capture and sequester some of the greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants from coal-fired power plants, the technology has never been used on a large scale because of its high cost,” the correction reads.

The correction also illustrates the heightened attention to crossword clues in an era of partisanship, vitriol and puzzle fervor.

“There’s been more politics in puzzles lately about what people should include in puzzles and what people shouldn’t include and the way clues should be directed,” Lempel said. “I don’t disagree with a lot of that. But it’s a puzzle, you know.”

This story also appears in Energywire.