It has been three weeks since The New York Times published Alessandra Stanley’s now-infamous “appraisal” of Walter Cronkite. The eight factual errors contained in the story have resulted in two corrections, an onslaught of criticism (present company included), and a column by the paper’s public editor.
The articles, columns, and blog posts continue to appear, but it’s notable that the central narrative is no longer just about Alessandra Stanley. That’s a good thing. People have moved on to raise new issues that deserve thought and attention.
James Rainey wrote this week in the Los Angeles Times that Stanley is part of a larger problem:
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…
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.”
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.
Both Calame and public editor number one Daniel Okrent told Rainey that their interactions with Stanley were memorable for all the wrong reasons. (Calame busted her for the nudge that never was; Okrent “criticized the critic for tone,” according to Rainey.) I’ve also heard from people with knowledge of the situation—yes, I’m citing anonymous sources here, so take it with whatever grain of salt you deem necessary—that while some senior people support Stanley, others in the newsroom are extremely upset that she is held to a different standard.
So does the Times have a star system? To steal a line from one of Okrent’s famous columns, of course it does.
There’s no doubt that Stanley is given more leeway than the average reporter when it comes to errors. If someone with less experience at the paper had her record with accuracy, they’d be given training, demoted, or offered some other form of disciplinary action. (The Times says it doesn’t comment publicly about disciplinary measures, but these things have a way of coming out. As of now, no one, including public editor Clark Hoyt, has offered any information about disciplinary action.)
It isn’t shocking to hear that some employees are treated differently than others. It’s also not unique to the Times, or to journalism for that matter. There are stars in every office. If you have the support of senior people in your workplace, you can get away with things that others can’t. I remember working at a company where people christened a colleague “The Golden Boy” because he could do no wrong in the eyes of the most senior leadership.
This is a common scenario, but it can create a cancerous workplace culture when stars escape discipline for very public missteps. This inconsistency further isolates the stars and their patrons from the rank and file. Of course, it also makes people want to become starts. Who wouldn’t want to operate with impunity and total protection?
The core of this issue is inequality and a lack of consistency. In order for something to become a standard, especially in newsrooms, it has to be applied equally. As far as we know, Stanley has escaped discipline and she’s not being offered training. In fact, she’s getting “special editing attention.” That’s anything but equal, and you can bet it’s angering people around her.
That’s why I recommended the Times use this highly publicized incident to create a newsroom-wide accuracy training program. If accuracy is everyone’s responsibility, then give everyone the tools and knowledge. Create a culture of accountability and equality. That means training for everyone, and appropriate discipline for Stanley.
John McIntyre, the former head of the copy desk at the Baltimore Sun, wrote a great meditation on the topic of stars in the newsroom:
Stars enjoys a status that lesser writers aspire to: freedom to pursue individual projects rather than carry out assignments, indulgence to prolong those projects indefinitely and to write at a length that some describe as “goat-chokers,” and — this above all — immunity from editing and the annoying questions and meddling that come with it.
Stars exist because they have patrons. Sometimes the patron is as exalted as the editor or managing editor, but often a patron is one of the lesser potentates on the assigning desks.* The patron is easy to spot, not only in close consultation with the writer on stories, but also in the casual exchanges of the day. Other employees are quick to spot which employees are invited to engage in banal chitchat with the bosses and which employees are generally ignored.
Rainey’s column in the Los Angeles Times included quotes from New York Times executive editor Bill Keller. He’s staunchly behind Stanley, but Keller also talked about the importance of equality in the newsroom. “Stars or purported stars are obliged to get their facts right,” he said. “Editors are obliged to edit everyone without fear or favor. Period.”
But what about consequences and consistency? Have other reporters in similar situations received “special editing attention”? Have they been given training and/or discipline?
Interestingly, Keller also expressed support for the public editor, noting that the job was part of the paper’s commitment to accountability and transparency:
One thing that sets a serious newspaper apart from most other institutions in our society is that we own up to our mistakes with corrections, editor’s notes and other accountability devices, including the public editor’s column.
Editor & Publisher followed up and received the full email exchange between the Times executive editor and Rainey. It includes a response from Keller wherein he floats the idea that the paper could ditch the public editor position when Hoyt’s term ends next year. (He said the same thing earlier this year in a chat with readers.) Here’s what Keller wrote to Rainey:
Whether a public editor should be a permanent, or at least continuing, fixture at The Times is a question much debated within our walls. I’ve kicked it down the road until we near the end of Clark’s term next year.
So, on one hand, the public editor is one of the things that makes the Times a “serious paper” and helps keep it accountable.
But, at the same time, they may ditch the role next year.
You might say his position lacks consistency.
Corrections of the Week
“In an obituary of Walter Cronkite on Page A1 July 18, The Associated Press, relying on published accounts that included Cronkite’s memoir, reported erroneously that ‘cronkiter’ was used in Sweden and the Netherlands as a term for ‘TV anchorman.’ Olof Hulten, a journalism educator in Sweden, and Radio Netherlands Worldwide’s Expert Desk say the term is unknown in their countries.” — Associated Press
“An obituary on July 18 about Walter Cronkite, using information from his autobiography, ‘A Reporter’s Life,’ misstated the origin of the term ‘anchor.’ While Mr. Cronkite was referred to as the anchor of CBS news coverage of the 1952 presidential conventions, that was not the first time that ‘anchor’ and ‘anchorman’ were used. Both terms had been applied to broadcasters in other contexts before the conventions. The obituary also included an erroneous anecdote from the autobiography about the extent of his fame. He was said to be so widely known that newscasters in Sweden were once called ‘Cronkiters,’ but that term is not known to linguists in that country. — The New York Times