In the wake of both the Jayson Blair scandal and the shameful Judith Miller coverage of WMDs in the run-up to the Iraq invasion, there’s not a lot that would surprise me about the foibles of the New York Times.
But I was brought up short by something I read in the column of the Times’ public editor, Clark Hoyt, this past Sunday.
It was part of his piece scourging the Times’ culture desk and copy desk for missing seven separate mistakes in its obituary and appreciation of Walter Cronkite after his death. The errors, Hoyt said, were the result of a perfect storm of overworked and inattentive editors and reporters, each of whom assumed someone else had already double-checked the facts in the stories they were reading and so did little or no fact-checking of their own.
But that wasn’t what caught my attention. Shit happens, particularly in this age of newspaper downsizing. A recent article pointed out the drastic jump in typos at the Washington Post since a round of layoffs decimated its ranks of copy editors. One has to assume that it’s an epidemic across what’s left of American newspapers – and will only get worse.
No, what stopped me was a passage about NYT TV critic Alessandra Stanley, who had been responsible for some of the Cronkite mistakes:
“For all her skills as a critic, Stanley was the cause of so many corrections in 2005 that she was assigned a single copy editor responsible for checking her facts. Her error rate dropped precipitously and stayed down after the editor was promoted and the arrangement was discontinued. Until the Cronkite errors, she was not even in the top 20 among reporters and editors most responsible for corrections this year. Now, she has jumped to No. 4 and will again get special editing attention.”
My first thought was: How does this woman keep her job? If she’s making enough mistakes that she needs her own remedial copy editor to hold her seemingly daily correction boxes to a single page, maybe they’re solving the wrong problem.
Earlier in the same piece, Hoyt referred to Stanley as “a prolific writer much admired by editors for the intellectual heft of her coverage of television.” But if she can’t get the facts straight two days in a row, how much heft does that intellect really have?
I was always taught that a critic was, first and foremost, a reporter. Just as a reporter on the police beat told readers about events he’d seen that they hadn’t, so a critic was telling readers about a work – a play, a movie, a TV show – that they hadn’t seen yet. Which meant getting the facts right before you started slinging opinions.
Still, we’re talking about the New York Times which operates in its own little universe. Its critics, for example, aren’t allowed to be members of the New York Film Critics Circle or vote for the Tonys for fear that someone might think the awards constitute an endorsement by the high and mighty Times. It’s possible to be an important newspaper, I guess, and still have an inflated sense of your own importance.
Even then, this just amazes me. I’ve worked at newspapers where, no matter how good you were, if you couldn’t get the facts straight, you were in big trouble. Your job was on the line. Being responsible for having to write a correction was considered a badge of shame, no matter how small or inadvertent the error.
All that a critic brings to the table are his taste, the strength of his convictions – and his command of the facts. If you can’t get the facts straight, how can I trust your opinion?
But rather than recognize a problem and deal with it – an unreliable reporter who consistently makes mistakes in print – the Times simply finds her a fact-checking nanny to make sure she doesn’t do anything too egregious.
It makes you wonder: Would the Times extend similar consideration to a sports reporter who consistently made mistakes covering the Yankees or the Giants, or to a government reporter who regularly included erroneous material in stories about Mayor Michael Bloomberg? I’m guessing not.
(On the other hand, the Times did let William Kristol blather on weekly on its Op-Ed page, despite the fact that his column invariably was followed by a correction of basic facts most weeks.)
But somehow Stanley keeps her job – and keeps doing it badly enough that she needs help cleaning up her mess everyday, or nearly.
So how many mistakes do you have to make to get demoted or fired at the New York Times. Do you have to actually make stuff up – and get caught at it - like Jayson Blair? Does Stanley have some bizarre form of tenure that prevents her removal? Or does she just have naked pictures of someone in power?
I’d like to see Hoyt write a piece about that.