When Newspapers Screw Up | Bleader

Monday, August 3, 2009

When Newspapers Screw Up

Posted By on 08.03.09 at 06:38 PM

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Every copy editor, when beginning on a new story turned in by a familiar writer, has a preconception of how well written it will be and, more to the point, how accurate. Mary McCarthy once said about Lillian Hellman, "Every word she writes is a lie, including and and the." If McCarthy had been Hellman's editor, for the sake of whoever paid them both she wouldn't have said a lie. She might have said carefree.

The editor's job is to whip a manuscript into such shape that there will be nothing to correct and nothing to apologize for, and with some of the more brilliant but carefree writers that's a good day's work, believe me. But it all stays in house. That's why "How Did This Happen?" the Sunday essay by the New York Times's public editor, Clark Hoyt, is such a shocker. He not only goes into unusual detail about how and why the Times botched its coverage of the death of Walter Cronkite, but he names a name:

The Times, he says, " had wrong dates for historic events; gave incorrect information about Cronkite’s work, his colleagues and his program’s ratings; misstated the name of a news agency, and misspelled the name of a satellite."

Why?

"The short answer is that a television critic with a history of errors wrote hastily and failed to double-check her work, and editors who should have been vigilant were not." A bit later Hoyt picks up this thread:

On June 19, Alessandra Stanley, a prolific writer much admired by editors for the intellectual heft of her coverage of television, wrote a sum-up of the Cronkite career, to be published after his death.

Stanley said she was writing another article on deadline at the same time and hurriedly produced the appraisal, sending it to her editor with the intention of fact-checking it later. She never did.

“This is my fault,” she said. “There are no excuses.”

In her haste, she said, she looked up the dates for two big stories that Cronkite covered — the assassination of Martin Luther King and the moment Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon — and copied them incorrectly. She wrote that Cronkite stormed the beaches on D-Day when he actually covered the invasion from a B-17 bomber. She never meant that literally, she said. “I didn’t reread it carefully enough to see people would think he was on the sands of Omaha Beach.”

What the Times now thinks about Stanley: "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."

What Stanley now thinks about the paper that just hung her out to dry: I can only imagine.

There was much more to it than one careless writer, Hoyt makes clear. There was Alphonse and Gaston editing up and down the line, the result of a story that sat around for so many days that it always seemed safe to get to it tomorrow, and then, when Cronkite died July 17, had to be rushed into print.

But for all that Hoyt explained, there were issues he might have raised but didn't.

1. Even though the Times prefers making layoffs anywhere but in the newsroom, the newsroom hasn't gotten by unscathed? Are there fewer editors now, with the surviving editors feeling, by the Times's lofty standards, stretched?

2. Is the newsroom culture of excellence unruffled? Or has the new need for speed, the emphasis on putting stories up on line, eroded the value placed on precision at all costs?

In other words, are the Times's perfectionists fighting the same uphill battle that's going on at every other paper, which is to keep looking good while feeling lousy?

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