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NYT Got 9 Details Wrong About Cronkite

From the ‘Public Editor’ at the New York Times:

How Did This Happen?

By CLARK HOYT

August 2, 2009

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 and failed to double-check her work, and editors who should have been vigilant were not.

But a more nuanced answer is that even a newspaper like The Times, with layers of editing to ensure accuracy, can go off the rails when communication is poor, individuals do not bear down hard enough, and they make assumptions about what others have done. Five editors read the article at different times, but none subjected it to rigorous fact-checking, even after catching two other errors in it. And three editors combined to cause one of the errors themselves.

Seemingly little mistakes, when they come in such big clusters, undermine the authority of a newspaper, and senior editors say they are determined to find fixes. The Times seems to have particular difficulty in writing about people after their deaths. In addition to the appraisal in the Arts section, a front-page Cronkite obituary had two errors of its own, and the paper has suffered through a recent string of obits with multiple errors. Craig Whitney, the standards editor, said late last week that an editor is being added to the obituary department to fact-check and work with the staff to reduce “unacceptably high error rates.”

The Cronkite episode suggests that a newsroom geared toward deadlines needs to find a much better way to deal with articles written with no certain publication date. Reporters and editors think they have the luxury of time to handle them later — and suddenly, it is too late.

What Sam Sifton, the culture editor, ruefully called “a disaster, the equivalent of a car crash,” started nearly a month before Cronkite died, when news began circulating that he was gravely ill. On June 19, Alessandra Stanley, a prolific writer much admired by editors for the intellectual heft of her coverage of television, wrote a sum-up of the Cronkite career, to be published after his death.

Stanley said she was writing another article on deadline at the same time and hurriedly produced the appraisal, sending it to her editor with the intention of fact-checking it later. She never did.

“This is my fault,” she said. “There are no excuses.”

In her haste, she said, she looked up the dates for two big stories that Cronkite covered — the assassination of Martin Luther King and the moment Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon — and copied them incorrectly. She wrote that Cronkite stormed the beaches on D-Day when he actually covered the invasion from a B-17 bomber. She never meant that literally, she said. “I didn’t reread it carefully enough to see people would think he was on the sands of Omaha Beach.”

June 19 was a Friday, a heavy time for the culture department, which was processing copy for Saturday, Sunday and Monday. Lorne Manly, Stanley’s editor, read the article but did not catch the mistakes; worse, he made a change that led to another error. Where Stanley had said correctly that Cronkite once worked for United Press, Manly changed it to United Press International, with a note to copy editors to check the name. In the end, it came out United Press and United Press International in the same sentence.

Though the correct date of the moon landing was fresh in his mind, Manly said, he read right over that mistake. Catching it might have flagged the need for more careful vetting. 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. Her error rate dropped precipitously and stayed down after the editor was promoted and the arrangement was discontinued. 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.

Janet Higbie, a copy editor, said she started reading the article that Friday and caught the misspelling of the Telstar satellite and the two incorrect dates, but fixes she thought she made didn’t make it into the paper. “I don’t know what happened,” she said. Higbie said she had to drop the story and jump to deadline work, and she assumed that someone else would pick up the editing later. No one did — for four weeks, until Cronkite died late on another busy Friday. “It fell through the cracks,” Higbie said.

Two days before his father died, Chip Cronkite sent me an e-mail message labeled, “pre-emptive correction.” He said that CBS, in reviewing its obituary material, had found inaccuracies. “As a life-long admirer of your newspaper,” he said, “may I suggest that you have someone double-check ahead of time?”

Douglas Martin, who had written an advance obit of Cronkite several years earlier, phoned Chip Cronkite. They went over spellings, discussed the cause of death and the like. No one thought to forward Chip Cronkite’s message to the culture department, where Stanley’s appraisal sat.

When his father died on July 17, Chip Cronkite said he called CBS and then The Times, at 8:01 p.m. Laurel Graeber, who was running the culture copy desk, said she didn’t get the word for half an hour. Work had just finished on the Saturday Arts section, and most of the editors had gone home. Past deadline, Amy Virshup, a deputy culture editor, decided to put Stanley’s appraisal across the top of the Arts front. Graeber said she was worried about a headline, photos and captions. “I was not focusing on details” within the story, she said, thinking those had been handled. Graeber did make one fix, changing the first name of ABC’s anchor to Charles Gibson from Charlie in the title of his program. But the title still had another error, which was just corrected on Saturday — mistake No. 8.

And, it could have been worse. Nicole Herrington, a late-shift editor reading the appraisal casually, decided to check a fact near the top — Cronkite’s age when he retired. It was wrong. He was 64, not 65. Virshup then headed off the same mistake in the Page 1 obituary.

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.

Chip Cronkite seemed philosophical about all the errors. He said his parents had a joke ashtray with the inscription, “Just give me the facts: I’ll mix ’em up when I quote you.”

To The Times, this isn’t a laughing matter. Whitney said: “We cannot tolerate this, and have tightened procedures to rule out a recurrence. I have spoken with those involved, and other senior newsroom editors and I will monitor the implementation of these measures.”

And ‘that’s the way it is’ with the New York Times.

Still, just imagine how accurate they are about people they don’t worship as a god.

In her haste, [Ms. Stanley] said, she looked up the dates for two big stories that Cronkite covered — the assassination of Martin Luther King and the moment Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon — and copied them incorrectly.

How could a newspaper reporter of Ms. Stanley purported ‘intellectual heft’ not know these dates?

By the way, perhaps this is an example of life imitating art.

Once upon a time there was a Mary Tyler Moore episode where she was working very late updating the TV station’s morgue files. However, she got so giddy she made up a very silly obituary.

Unfortunately, this obit got pressed into service and was read by anchorman (and Walter Cronkite impersonator) Ted Baxter:

Ted: (reading a joke obituary on the air) And now we come to a sad part of the news; Wee Willie Williams is dead, at 110. For a long time, Wee Willie Williams was the oldest living citizen in Minneapolis. There were other citizens in Minneapolis who were older; however, they happen to be dead. When last interviewed, Wee Willie had no immediate plans for the future, but hoped to include traveling, gardening…and breathing. Wee Willie had two main hobbies, which were whittling, and going down to the bus station and not doing anything. He also enjoyed playing his favorite little game, which he called ‘ignoring people’. How it was played was, no matter what anyone would say to him, he would turn his head away, and stare off into space. But look at it this way; now he can play it even better because he doesn’t have to worry about blinking. This is Ted Baxter saying good night and good news!

Alas, Lou Grant had to fire Mary Richards.

Of course Ms. Stanley will not face such a fate. (She is just going to get “special editing attention.”)

That is the difference between the standards of the make-believe world of television and the New York Times.

This article was posted by Steve on Sunday, August 2nd, 2009. Comments are currently closed.

13 Responses to “NYT Got 9 Details Wrong About Cronkite”

  1. caligirl9 says:

    Geez, you learn how to avoid errors such as these in your first semester of any journalism/mass comm degree program. There were too many cooks working on this stew. The more people who look at stuff like this, the better to introduce errors as those extra sets of eyes work to put their slant on things.

    Methinks if you have a writer who needs a copy editor all to herself, there may be a problem with the quality of that writer’s work. Copy editing and fact checking isn’t so hard (it’s what I do for meager pay) but it is tedious.

    This obit should have been perfect. Isn’t there some new grad working in the bowels of the Slime’s offices churning out obits for celebrities and political figures to have immediately available, should the need arise? That’s how it use to be: new grad journalists got the obits and high school sports, and worked their way out of the dungeon.

  2. pianogirl88 says:

    Ah, the NYTimes…not a credible news source!

  3. Melly says:

    (“Love is All Around” by Paul Williams – sort of) – Mary Tyler Moore Show Lyrics

    Who can turn the world on with their bias?
    Who can take a nothing day, and suddenly make it all seem about Obama?
    Well it’s you New York Slimes, and you should know it.
    With each inaccuracy and every little slant you show it.

    Love is all around, no need to waste it.
    You can have a Liberal Regime, why don’t you take it.
    You’re gonna make it after all.
    You’re gonna make it after all.

    How will you make it on your own?
    This world is awfully big, paper this time you’re all alone.
    But it’s time you started correctly reporting.
    It’s time you let someone else do some truth telling.

    Love is all around, no need to waste it.
    You can have the country, why don’t you take it.
    You’re gonna make it after all.
    You’re gonna make it after all.

  4. GL0120 says:

    Get serious folks, since when did accuracy have anything to do with news?

  5. GetBackJack says:

    Matthew 15:14 – Let them alone: they be blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch.

    • Kytross says:

      Allow me some application.

      Right now the blind are leading the sighted as well. We’re warning them about the ditch, but they aren’t listening.

  6. wardmama4 says:

    -‘June 19 was a Friday’- Well there’s the answer – it was a Friday dump – the NYTs probably thought no one was ever going to see it/complain/care at all.

    After all if Ms NYTs can’t/doesn’t know history (April 4, 1968, July 20,1969 – see I did it without looking) do they really expect a single person of the ‘stupid masses to know or care about history?

    It is all just another way to 1) continue expounding on their own biases, 2) to continue to dumb down Americans and 3) to make history (most especially American history) not important at all.

    It is the only way they can get their agenda through – if more people know and understand history – they couldn’t get a single paper sold to anyone not on staff nor get elected dog catcher and most certainly not get so many worthless, fraud ridden, corrupt social programs shoved into ‘law’ .

  7. Liberals Demise says:

    The dead fish didn’t seem to mind being wrapped in it although it did add to the odor!!

  8. MinnesotaRush says:

    “Stanley said she was writing another article on deadline at the same time and hurriedly produced the appraisal, sending it to her editor with the intention of fact-checking it later. She never did.”

    Uh huh. Sure. Yeah. Riiiiiiiight!

  9. proreason says:

    The interesting thing about language is that words change meanings over time.

    “Fact” is changing meaning from “an incontrovertable truth” to “something that enhances the point of a story”.

    I’m not kidding.

  10. mathews says:

    the NY Times neglected to mention Cronkite’s Vietnam Tet Offensive claims how shockingly bad the American Soldiers were doing…


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