Ask The Editor

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

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1 Comment »

  1. You’re right–it’s inexcusable that the so-called paper of record continues to give assignments to such an error-prone writer when so many excellent journalists are out of work. I sent the public editor a email to that effect yesterday. I’ve never before heard of a writer so indifferent to accuracy that she has to have her own personal factchecker and it boggles the mind that the NYT thinks that is a reasonable solution to this train wreck. Sounds like the entire editorial dept is asleep at the switch.

    Comment by Lisa CC — August 3, 2009 @ 10:13 am | Reply


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