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Cronkite blunder a revealing look inside New York Times

Alessandra Stanley's many mistakes point to a double standard when it comes to high-profile writers. More of the Times' high level of self scrutiny is a step in the right direction.

August 05, 2009|James Rainey

I have to admit it would be fun to join the rollicking beat-down of the New York Times and Alessandra Stanley that has followed the chief television critic's egregiously error-ridden tribute to Walter Cronkite.

Wasn't the public fascinated, after all, to learn that Stanley and the nation's Paper of Record managed eight mistakes in an almost 1,200-word tribute to Uncle Walter? Didn't many in the news game enjoy a moment of schadenfreude, seeing such a tart critic of shoddy TV journalism with her own flank exposed?

But sweet payback has more to do with emotion than reason.

In fact, the botched Cronkite appreciation and the brutally frank corrective actions (including last Sunday's scathing deconstruction by the paper's public editor) expose both a chronic weakness and a persistent strength inside the New York Times, America's most important journalistic institution.

The Times has a bad habit, revealed by the Stanley critique and in recent years by the Jayson Blair and Judith Miller incidents, of letting a few well-connected journalists run amok. At the same time, the Times has shown the strength to subject itself to a level of self scrutiny that some (in a Web Age when corrections of grievous errors come labeled as "updates") would not even pretend.

The New York Times, in short, needs to enforce its high standards more uniformly, regardless of whose byline appears at the top of the story. But its TV critic's latest stumble down Error Alley is hardly evidence, as some would like to suggest, that journalism's top brand has been hopelessly compromised.

I come to this mixed verdict, in part, after a conversation with the newspaper's former public editor, Byron Calame, who told me that "a lot of New York Times editors don't feel, in their gut, they have the right to challenge veteran and star reporters and columnists the way they need to."

But Calame, now retired after a couple of years as the Times' internal watchdog, added: "I still think it's an amazing newspaper. They do a lot of things right. So I don't think this is some sort of huge hole they can't pull out of."

The Cronkite appraisal felt like "a disaster, the equivalent of a car crash," as one editor put it, because of the prominence of the subject and because the newspaper had plenty of time to prepare for the ailing newsman's death.

Yet in her piece, Stanley, who previously worked as a foreign correspondent and covered the White House, misstated the dates of the first moon landing and the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. She had Cronkite covering D-day from the beaches of Normandy, instead of high overhead in a B-17.

Calame's successor and the paper's current public editor, Clark Hoyt, attributed the mistake-filled Cronkite appraisal to "a television critic with a history of errors [who] wrote hastily and failed to double-check her work, and editors who should have been vigilant [but] were not."

He suggested that tougher scrutiny by editors and better communication could have prevented the errors. No doubt.

But I think Hoyt paid too little attention to Stanley's special standing at the paper.

In fact, several people who work at the Times told me they are troubled that Stanley is a star whose continued accuracy problems seem to provoke no apparent discipline.

Her failings became serious enough a few years ago that the paper assigned the TV critic her own personal copy editor -- a fact noted in Hoyt's assessment.

Calame wrote in 2005 about what he said was a cut-and-dried inaccuracy, in which Stanley accused Fox News personality Geraldo Rivera of grandstanding in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

The TV critic wrote that Rivera "nudged an Air Force rescue worker out of the way," so he could help an older woman into a wheelchair. But Calame reviewed the video and saw no nudging.

Rather than agree to a correction, however, Times Editor Bill Keller defended Stanley for "writing as a critic, with the license that title brings." In other words, Rivera was showboating, so he had nudged his way into the story figuratively, if not literally.

Both of the Times' former public editors -- Daniel Okrent and Calame -- told me their critiques produced sharp rebukes from Stanley.

Okrent -- who once criticized the critic for tone, not accuracy -- remembers her as "extremely defensive and hostile," while Calame said she attacked him as a nitpicker.

Those reactions and Keller's somewhat tortured defense of his TV critic tell me that Stanley was one of the entitled ones. The Times is the Times in part because writers such as Maureen Dowd and Thomas Friedman -- and to some extent others like Stanley -- think big and write with brio.

They enhance their names, and the paper's, by staking out novel ground.

But ultimately, the Times remains the nation's premier news outlet because it has a high regard for facts. That is why even the paper's harshest critics -- in their blog postings and cable TV reports -- spin off facts they first learned in the Times.

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