Sunday, August 2, 2009

Take responsibility

In an extraordinary article, Clark Hoyt, the public editor for The New York Times, takes us through the process by which a retrospective article on Walter Cronkite by Alessandra Stanley was published with an astonishing number of errors intact. *

While I admire The Times for employing Mr. Hoyt and having the courage to publish an article explaining the paper’s embarrassment, the circumstances described therein point to some serious shortcomings. The main problem, it appears, lies with the author: “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.” When that copy editor was assigned to other duties, the errors resumed.

So the paper has a writer who cannot get things right, and the solution is to assign someone to fix things for her rather than to require her to be accurate. Amazing.**
Here’s the main thing, and it is more urgent today, with the depletion of copy desks, than it has ever been:

You, the reporter/writer, are responsible for the accuracy of what you write. It is your job to make sure that every statement of fact, every quotation, is represented accurately. If you slap something together and turn it in assuming that someone else will clean up after you, you are committing malpractice.

But what really dumbfounded me was the account of a copy editor — at The Times, which, God save the mark, still takes copy editing more seriously than most other publications — who started work on the Stanley article as an advance, was drawn away to daily copy, and never returned to the Stanley article because “she assumed that someone else would pick up the editing later [emphasis added].”

On my old copy desk at The Sun, may its memory endure, a copy editor who picked up a story stayed with it. And if the editing had to be interrupted by some delay, the copy editor would leave a note at the top of the story indicating that the editing was incomplete and pointing to questions or issues that remained to be addressed. This point is also more essential than it has ever been:

If you are a copy editor, you do not let a story out of your hands until you have completed the editing.

This thing at The Times has a lot of fingerprints on it, and I assume, without expecting to see an auto-da-fe on Eighth Avenue, that The Times is issuing some godly admonitions to its writers, assigning editors, and copy editors about doing their jobs properly.

In the meantime, if any of you are sneering at The Times over this while you publish crackpot claims by birthers, or stories that the president’s health care proposal includes euthanasia of old people, or rumors that the military’s prototype biomass-eating robot will consume human flesh, you’ve got much to be ashamed of, too.

*Seven errors are mentioned in Mr. Hoyt’s article, but a correction of an eighth was published in yesterday’s editions of The Times: “An appraisal on July 18 about Walter Cronkite’s career misstated the name of the ABC evening news broadcast. While the program was called ‘World News Tonight’ when Charles Gibson became anchor in May 2006, it is now ‘World News With Charles Gibson,’ not ‘World News Tonight With Charles Gibson.’ ”

**Ah, crap, it’s not amazing at all. Every copy editor knows that publications indulge in stars, often columnists and critics but also reporters, who are not required to meet the standards expected of an intern. They don’t get things right, they can’t be edited, and they won’t be bothered.


  1. You didn't address one part, which you have discussed in the past:

    "Looking back at it all — a critic making mistakes in haste, editors failing to vet her work enough, a story sitting for weeks without attention and then being rushed through — one sees how small missteps lead to big trouble, leaving readers to wonder what they can trust."

    It's just the same as a plane crash.

  2. Actually, I would like to see an auto-da-fe on Eighth Avenue; I love a spectacle.

  3. The key phrase from the Hoyt article is this: "a prolific writer much admired by editors for the intellectual heft of her coverage of television". This immediately puts the whole matter on a different level. Whatever her formal title, Stanley is not a reporter at all: she's a Bestselling Author, a Great Writer who can't write very well. What counts is not whether she gets it right, but that she can be counted on to put out something about TV that's more intelligent than (most of) the programming: not a hard target to hit, but difficult to attract really competent people to.

    Well, in the case of Bestselling Authors it may well make economic sense for them to have dedicated copy editors, and even dedicated editors, whose sole job it is to convert the incoherent mass of drivel the B.A. turns in into something the public will swallow whole and beg for more of. That's show biz. But what the Times is doing in that line of work is far from clear.

    It is good to see that Stanley accepts responsibility and so does the Times, without waffling.

  4. Robert Ofcrosskeys
    It looks like there are quite a few articles on her errors.

    Robert Ofcrosskeys
    Wow, even Katie Couric dressed Stanley down for the errors. A NYT writer being criticized by Katie Couric is like a Michelin three star chef being criticized by Rachel Ray. The only thing that makes it worse is that it is deserved.

    Gary Kirchherr
    I especially love Stanley's quote that when she wrote that Cronkite stormed the beaches at Normandy, oh, she didn't mean that *literally.* Classic.

    Pam Robinson
    Couric was enjoying a little revenge, since Stanley savaged her in an article a couple of years ago.

    Rob Smith
    This might be a bit harsh, but why doesn't the NYT just let Stanley go? Is she that big of a star that they can look past all the errors?

  5. Rob:
    I'm with you.

    Traceychen: Whoah! Hey! Quality...right? Quality? Come on. Fire her--and then fire the copy desk chief and entire string of editors who allowed this to happen and did not recommend that she be fired. Then fire the person who fired all of them. Then have THAT person fire him/herself. Scour the organization of poor quality.

    There are many, many, many good writers and editors out there are anxious to do good work.

    Why settle for less?

    I mean, we're talking quality, here, right?

  6. How did I get dragged into this? Are you missing me Captain? No need to make up stuff I didn't say or think, sir. I haven't even seen the thing yet. But good to hear you are still afloat :)

  7. OK. I went to the link. This is hilarious (and sad). Most famous person in the media. Best-known paper (in the world maybe). Dear Captain, I would not fire anyone. This case only argues for my previously-stated belief: MORE and better editors are needed! We know they are available.

  8. The boldfaced remarks should be posted in every newsroom. I'd remark on how sad it is that they need to be, but that ship has sailed.

  9. I might get blasted for this, but I don't care how exalted a writer may be. If they continue to write articles that are full of inaccuracies and outright fallacies, they should be be banished. Unfortunately, they will resurface on the Web somewhere.

  10. I'd be willing to bet that Mrs Couric didn't discover those errata on her own. I've heard her talk.

  11. With all due respect to Mr. Cowan and to everyone else in this sophisticated, well-mannered discussion: The American newspaper industry already has quite a few smart TV critics who bring both intellectual heft and creativity to their craft, along with a dedication to fundamental skills e.g., getting the facts right. As a former member of the TV Critics Association (I was The Oregonian's TV critic from 2000 - 2008) I'd say there's no shortage of intellectual firepower in the tv criticism department. Think of Time's James Poniewozik; the SF Chronicle's Tim Goodman; former Dallas Morning Newser (and current blogger) Ed Bark; The New Yorker's Nancy Franklin; and on and on. All are terrific, insightful critics, which is exactly what the nation's dominant medium requires. Why the NY Times feels they have no other options is a mystery to me.

  12. One would hope that the major newspapers are not as worried about "stars" leaving for such bad reasons...considering the number of staff writers available.

    Though I may sound exceedingly crochety and old-fashioned, there is something to be said for a publication so small and focused that the Editor-in-Chief reviews every article and more often than not, the entire editorial staff picks 1 or 2 articles to read in addition to their assigned articles. Granted, this requires sufficient editorial staffing.

  13. Accuracy is actually hard to achieve. Even the most authoritative sources often need to be checked. On that score, your article might have noted that it wasn't only the NYT that had trouble with the Cronkite obit. The AP, and many others, reported that in Sweeden, news anchors were, for a time, called Kronkiters. As On The Media ( reported this week, there's no evidence to support this, except for a mention in a book by David Halberstam, a writer with a great reputation for accuracy, who appears in this case to have been punk'd. Halberstam was so convincing, OTM reported, that Cronkite himself repeated this erroneous 'fact' in his memoirs.

  14. Also interesting is this fact buried in the article:

    "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."

    I'd love to know who the top three are--and how many editors they hire to give "special editing attention."

  15. I am not taking Ms. Stanley's side here, but the hypocrisy of some (I don't mean Mr. McIntyre) stinks. I'm sure there are writers all over creation who shudder when they think about things they got wrong that were caught by copy editors and checkers. I'm not talking about the New Yorker, where some exalted writers don't even supply dates. (They just write "pls chk" or some such and the person spending the week with their copy goes off and does the research.) I mean writers and critics from top magazines to shoppers who are routinely saved from embarrassment by editors and checkers. To say Ms. Stanley should be fired because she mixes up dates etc. is wrong. She should be fired for her writing, but that is another story.

  16. The thing that amazed me here is that the Times has the staff (or the budget) to assign a "personal caddy" editor to one writer. That probably wouldn't happen at papers with staffs so short they have to scramble to finish everything.

  17. Correction: Hoyt mentioned all 8 errors -- not just 7. In fact, he noted that the 8th had just been published on Saturday. Hoyt wrote:

    "But the title still had another error, which was just corrected on Saturday — mistake No. 8."

  18. Peter Ames Carlin: Probably the same reason that the NYT has David instead of a more insightful conservative commentator, or Old Bill instead of a better-informed language columnist (the man has access to excellent sources which he ignores on the grounds that they would just confuse him with the fact), or Maureen instead of a superior whatever-it-is-that-Maureen-does columnist.

    In any case, I certainly didn't mean to imply that TV columnists are, as a class, lacking in either heft or productivity (consider Harlan Ellison's columns from the 70s!), and I am sorry that I gave you that impression; I shall endeavor not to make that mistake again. (Note to all politicians: this is what an apology looks like: confession, contrition, promise of amendment.)

    Steve Din: It's perfectly true that we all make mistakes, and nobody knows that better than I qua computer programmer -- our mistakes are so common we give them the special name of bugs because mistake would be too embarrassing. But in all professions there are people who deliver consistently good-quality work and people who don't. Those who don't, had better make sure they have some extremely important compensating merit.

  19. John Cowan: No offense taken, really. But thanks anyway for your apology. Which wasn't necessary, but was still quite elegant.

  20. What rankles most is management trashing perfectly good copy desks (e.g. The Sun) while elsewhere dysfunctional ones appear to flourish (e.g. NYT).

    If you represent your work as non-fiction, get each sentence as "right" as the available sources will permit.

    Facts are indeed things, but accuracy is the congruence of various sources. Sometimes that point of congruence is stochastic, not deterministic. (Is Pluto a planet or not?)

    That's why they call it "work."