Ask The Editor

August 7, 2009

Where are the responsible adults? Certainly not in the newsroom.

Yesterday, a mob (no other word for it) of misinformed, angry people who, when interviewed, said they were part of a group formed by Glenn Beck, shut down a heath care reform town hall in Tampa.

The local NBC television affiliate, when reporting on this, gave no context on what’s behind such events. Instead of analysis, the station just showed angry demonstrators and then said, go to our website and give us your opinion.

Give your opinion? Based on what? Zero reporting of what inspired the demonstrators? Zero reporting on whether that inspiration had any basis in fact?

So, why should anyone be surprised that the situation is now escalating and, on Twitter, an anti-health insurance reform leader is telling fellow protesters to bring guns to use against union leaders and community organizers at subsequent town halls?
When American television news became infotainment and ratings trumped all, we lost an important means of educating people. Almost nobody is well-informed in this country, despite making the effort of watching so-called 24-hour news stations. CNN, calling itself an all-news network, hosted Glenn Beck until he was wooed away by Faux News, and still hosts the race-baiter Lou Dobbs!

With the simmering racism that’s stoked by Beck, Dobbs, and others, we have a populace, or a large swathe of it, that’s about as ignorant and probably close to as resentful as the poor undereducated masses of some oil-rich countries. Over there, they believe bin Laden. Over here, their American counterparts believe Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh.

As a result, many are nursing pseudo-grievances that can and do lead to violence.

And now, we have the former Republican VP candidate, stirring the flames, crazily claiming that the president’s “death panel” wants to euthanize her Downs Syndrome child.

All of the above are acting in the service of the health insurance industry so insurers can keep their near-monopolies in their respective areas, and suck the lifeblood out of the very people they’re manipulating into hate and potential violence. But the mainstream news media won’t report that. Instead, everything is treated with so-called balance, with opportunities for he said/she said, as if there were no actual truth to be uncovered, just opinion that you form based on the words of flacks and then, go post on the TV stations’ websites.

This insanity is the fault of news executives who care nothing about fact and everything about ratings. They hire industry mouthpieces and nutcases who can manipulate the ignorant into a frothing frenzy.

Is there a Cronkite in the house? When will the mainstream media finally stop playing games and tell it like it is? Or are they going to wait until those twitterers show up with their guns and start blasting away?

- Anita Bartholomew

August 2, 2009

New York Times’ public editor’s inexcusable excuse about reporter errors

A friend read yesterday’s blog post on sloppy reporting at The New York Times and pointed me to Public Editor Clark Hoyt’s column in today’s Times. It’s about an error-ridden obituary that the paper published upon Walter Cronkite’s death. I found one section particularly telling:

THE TIMES published an especially embarrassing correction on July 22, fixing seven errors in a single article — an appraisal of Walter Cronkite, the CBS anchorman famed for his meticulous reporting. The newspaper 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.

“Wow,” said Arthur Cooper, a reader from Manhattan. “How did this happen?”

The short answer is that a television critic with a history of errors wrote hastily [emphasis Anita's] and failed to double-check her work, and editors who should have been vigilant were not.

I quickly checked whether The New York Times was still publishing the work of Alessandra Stanley, the entertainment writer/critic/obit writer who has a “history of errors,” according to Hoyt, and who hit the error jackpot on this one. Clicking on her name in the public editor’s column, I discovered she has had three pieces published in the Times since the errors in her Cronkite obituary came to the editors’ attention.

Clark Hoyt makes clear that Alessandra Stanley wasn’t  rushing to meet the deadline on this obit on the day Cronkite died; she’d written it on June 19, almost a month before it ran, and turned it in without fact-checking it.

Let me pause here and say I can’t imagine any competent writer turning in work he/she hadn’t ascertained was factual.

I just had to head off a potentially embarrassing situation with a magazine I won’t name. After turning in a thoroughly fact-checked (by me) article, the magazine emailed its “edited” version to me for a final review. I discovered that the magazine had introduced at least 19 factual errors including an entirely new section I’d never seen before (and certainly hadn’t written). The editor or someone else had apparently decided that the article should include information on an issue about which this new writer had no knowledge or understanding. This person had then written approximately 100 words-worth of wildly inaccurate conclusions.

Although I provided corrections to the sections where the magazine had introduced errors into my own copy, I didn’t have the time to double-check all the new material written by someone else. Simply knowing that, in the sections originating with me, someone had turned carefully checked fact into something less was enough to convince me to distance myself from the piece. I demanded that the magazine remove my byline.

I point to the above because I’m confident that most professional writers would do something similar: either ensure accuracy or, if that weren’t possible, make certain their names weren’t associated with inaccurate copy. To be less vigilant can amount to professional suicide.

But, if I’m reading Clark Hoyt’s column correctly, The New York Times doesn’t have the same concerns about reputation that I believe most of my freelance writer friends have. Despite being forced to run a column about correcting the copy of “a television critic with a history of errors,” and at a time when thousands of competent journalists are out of work, The New York Times gave this person several more chances to potentially embarrass the paper of record.

It does boggle the brain, doesn’t it?

- Anita Bartholomew

August 1, 2009

Where does The New York Times get all these lazy reporters?

I admit I have a love-hate relationship with The New York Times. I count on it being what a newspaper is supposed to be (and it often is). So when it lazily just quotes the interested parties in a story without digging for what the real story is, as it seems to do about once a week,  it feels like more than a disappointment. It borders on a betrayal.

Scott Horton, in his blog post about the difference between the Times and Washington Post reporting on the same story, points to WaPo having done real reporting. Reading the WaPo piece, you see that he’s right. The reporter quoted the interview subject, in this case, Karl Rove, then checked his claims against the evidence and refuted a number of Rove’s statements. The New York Times reporter, by contrast, swallowed Rove’s statements whole simply to regurgitate them onto newsprint.

To my mind, this pattern of laziness casts doubt on the value of all Times‘ reporting whether political or medical or sociological or legal or otherwise, at a time when news reporting is in deep crisis and needs to prove its worth:

… Karl Rove, violating his agreement with the House Judiciary Committee (which I discussed here), gave “exclusive” interviews to the Times and the Washington Post, in a determined effort to spin the bad news about his role in the firing of the U.S. attorneys and his unseen hand in the work of the Justice Department generally. The Post’s piece, by Carrie Johnson, shows an appropriate level of balance and skepticism about Rove’s self-serving and highly misleading claims. Not so the Times. Indeed, the headline tells the whole story: “Rove Says His Role in Prosecutor Firings Was Small.” The problem, of course, is that the evidence the Judiciary Committee has collected, and the investigation by special prosecutor Nora Dannehy, show precisely the opposite. They put Karl Rove squarely in the center of the effort to remove the U.S. attorneys fired in the December 7, 2006 massacre…

- Anita Bartholomew

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