Opinion

Jack Shafer

In defense of journalistic error

Jack Shafer
Apr 22, 2013 22:23 UTC

Hilary Sargent, who does business on the Web as Chart Girl, compiled the best early guide to the journalistic mistakes made on the afternoon of April 17, as broadcasters and wire services moved their conflicting and error-studded reports about the status of the Boston Marathon bombing dragnet. At least eight news organizations — including the Boston Herald, the Associated Press, CNN and local station WCVB-TV — reported that either an arrest had either been made or was imminent.

These bulletins were, of course, proved wrong quickly. By the weekend, New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan was crowing about the home team’s errorless Boston performance in her column. With uncharacteristic swagger, Sullivan wrote that the paper’s performance upheld its “reputation as journalism’s gold standard,” a comment likely to be shoved back in her face several times before her public editorship ends.

Without question, the Times deserves credit for avoiding rank errors in its Boston coverage, as do the scores of other outlets that fielded the story without booting the ball. But as anybody who has worked in a newsroom can tell you, reportorial diligence is never sufficient to prevent a news organization from misreporting stories. News, especially breaking news, has always been a difficult thing to report accurately. If you examine the news product closely, you’ll discover a vein of feldspar running through even the shiniest gold standard.

Journalists don’t need to dip into a box labeled “Half-truths and Innuendo” to make mistakes: Screwing up has been integral to the reporting of timely news for a long time , no matter how sterling a news organization’s standards, as this recent American Journalism Review feature by Paul Farhi documents. In 2002, the last year for which I have collected the numbers, the gold-standard Times confessed to 2,867 corrections, compared with the Washington Post‘s 1,006 and the Chicago Tribune‘s 678. In all likelihood, the Times error count soared because 1) it routinely addresses more difficult stories; 2) has more intelligent readers around the world probing its stories for goofs; and 3) has for more than a decade made the error-correction process easier than other outlets, such as the Washington Post, whose ombudsman, Michael Getler, accused the Post of institutional suppression of corrections in a 2003 column (paid).

Error tallies, such as the one above, don’t demonstrate that news reporting is a particularly error-prone enterprise but that the business and its customers have come to an unspoken agreement of how perfect the news product must be. Near-perfect news could be printed and broadcast if reports were vetted and peer-reviewed for weeks or months before publication. But readers desire timely “journalism in lieu of dissertation,” to pinch Edgar Allan Poe‘s succinct phrase, and willingly accept a certain level of error as long as the news organizations readily acknowledge their mistakes. Most of us accept minuscule failure rates when buying a new car or refrigerator, knowing that some will fail us in surprising and unpredictable ways. Likewise, we make a similar bargain at the dinner table, accepting low levels of mercury and arsenic in the food we eat and the water we drink, as long we’re kept informed and the low levels do not cause illness.

Beat sweetener: The Benjamin J. Rhodes edition

Jack Shafer
Mar 18, 2013 21:23 UTC

If you’ve ever wanted to see a White House staffer dressed in frosting and candy sprinkles like a gourmet cupcake, pull your Saturday, March 16, New York Times out of the recycling pile and read Mark Landler’s adulating “beat sweetener” about Deputy National Security Adviser Benjamin J. Rhodes, “Worldly at 35, and Shaping Obama’s Voice.”

A beat sweetener, as press-watchers know, is an over-the-top slab of journalistic flattery of a potential source calculated to earn a reporter access or continued access. They’re most frequently composed on the White House beat when a new administration arrives in Washington and every Executive Office job turns over, but they can appear any time a reporter is prepared to demean himself by toadying up to a source in exchange for material.

As a beat sweetener, the Rhodes piece excels on so many levels that I’ll bet the subject’s parents have framed and hung the clipping over the family mantel. Landler portrays Rhodes as a young fella with “old man” wisdom; as possessing a “soft voice” that delivers “strong opinions”; as one whose “influence extends beyond what either his title or speechwriting duties suggest”; and as someone who “cares” to the point of “anguish” but is “very realistic.”

Goodbye Globe, hello global New York Times

Jack Shafer
Mar 1, 2013 01:13 UTC

The New York Times Co. has been shedding its non-core assets, smoothing its cost structure, strengthening its balance sheet and rebalancing its portfolio with such haste over the past two years that only a cruel and unusual press critic would urge it to quadruple those efforts.

I am that cruel and unusual press critic.

The company was a diversified media outfit 10 years ago, owning eight television stations; two radio stations; 16 newspapers in addition to the New York Times, the Boston Globe and the International Herald Tribune; and a slew of websites. It had a market cap of about $7 billion. Today, the emaciated operation is worth a notch over $1 billion on a good day.

The television stations were liquidated in 2006, but the most aggressive dismantling began 20 months ago, as piece by piece the Times Co. steadily broke off chunks of itself and put them up for sale. To Barry Diller’s IAC/InterActiveCorp went the About Group for $300 million and to Halifax Media Holdings its Regional Media group of newspapers for about $145 million. The company shed its stake in the Fenway Sport Group (Boston Red Sox) in two installments for a total of $180 million and sold off its share in the job-search engine Indeed.com for $164 million. The stripping of the old media conglomerate to its Times-ian essence—the Times itself and the rebranded International Herald Tribune as the International New York Times—will be complete when it finds a buyer for the Boston Globe and its allied properties. One research analyst predicts the Globe could go for $175 million provided the Times Co. covers the pension liabilities.

Thank the lord the Times isn’t the newspaper of record

Jack Shafer
Dec 6, 2012 23:50 UTC

The New York Times took a few lumps yesterday from its public editor, Margaret Sullivan, who seconded the protests of “many readers” who wrote to her complaining that the Times was not paying sufficient attention to the pretrial testimony of Private Bradley Manning at Fort Meade, Md. Manning was arrested in May 2010 and is accused of the wholesale leaking of thousands of classified documents to Wikileaks. The New Republic has also taken the newspaper to task for its non-coverage of the hearings, during which Manning described inhuman treatment by his captors.

The Times has not subjected Manning to a news blackout, Sullivan acknowledges, writing that the paper ran an Associated Press story about the proceedings last week and repeating Times Washington Bureau Chief David Leonhardt’s pretty good excuses that 1) the paper does not ordinarily cover every proceeding in every newsworthy case and 2) the paper previously covered (in 2011!) the charges of Manning’s mistreatment.

Sullivan is not persuaded. She quotes at length from a comment by Times reader David Morf, who states that the Times “is the paper of record” and the place where the Pentagon Papers were published. “It’s unconscionable and sad if the Times sits quietly by saying nothing — even worse, simply running AP wire copy to let the story bury itself,” he writes. Sullivan nods in approval, concluding that the Manning hearings’ news value dictates that the “Times should be there.”

The New York Times, the BBC and the Savile sex scandal

Jack Shafer
Oct 25, 2012 23:02 UTC

Before he has even had time to measure his office windows for draperies, incoming New York Times Co. CEO Mark Thompson is in the media crosshairs. No less a figure than Times‘s public editor, Margaret Sullivan, implored the paper this week to investigate what role, if any, Thompson had in a burgeoning scandal at the BBC, which he headed for eight years until late this summer.

The BBC scandal is so long-running, so multifaceted and so sordid that it could potentially injure everyone who has worked at the organization over the past 40 years—up to Thompson but including the janitors who clean the BBC’s studio dressing rooms—even if they’re guilty of nothing.

The scandal’s center is Jimmy Savile, the longtime host of a variety of BBC radio and TV programs for kids and young people (including the Top of the Pops), a celebrity fundraiser and friend to politicians and royalty. Late last year, shortly after Savile died, the BBC’s Newsnight program readied an investigative piece about Savile’s alleged sexual abuse of young girls. But just as the findings were about to be broadcast, Newsnight‘s top editor gave it the spike.

Banning quote approval sounds good, but can it work?

Jack Shafer
Sep 21, 2012 22:53 UTC

New York Times reporter Jeremy W. Peters rolled a stink bomb into the church of journalism in July with his Page One story revelation about the widespread practice of “quote approval.” It turns out that reporters from many top news outlets covering the White House and the Obama and Romney campaigns – including the Times, Bloomberg, the Washington Post, Reuters, Vanity Fair, and others – regularly allow Obama and Romney staffers and strategists to dictate terms for interviews that permit them to rewrite or even spike things they’ve said.

Former CBS News anchor Dan Rather called the quote approval “a jaw-dropping turn in journalism” and a “Faustian bargain,” warning that it could make reporters “an operative arm of the administration or campaign they are covering.” Edward Wasserman, incoming dean of the University of California at Berkeley journalism school told NPR’s On the Media that it reduced an interview to “a press release.” Others compared the practice to “quote doctoring,” and editors at National Journal, Associated Press, McClatchy Newspapers and the Washington Examiner promptly banned it from their pages.

Yesterday, after an influential column by David Carr, one of its own, and a prodding blog item by Margaret Sullivan, its new public editor, the Times issued its own prohibition against after-the-fact “quote approval.”

Erik Wemple spotted the very visible loophole in the Times policy shortly after it was promulgated and drove his Washington Post blog through it. All reporters need do, explained Wemple, is call White House sources to talk about an issue; wait for the sources to agree to a “background” interview; agree to attribute the quotations to a “White House official;” then ask the source for additional quotations on the record. As Wemple notes, this arrangement would not violate the new Times policy, which appears to ban quote approval only as a precondition for an interview.

Turning the morning news into soap opera

Jack Shafer
Jun 21, 2012 21:50 UTC

Ann Curry, the second fiddle on NBC’s Today show, is apparently being shown the door. That news was broken yesterday afternoon by Brian Stelter, the prolific media reporter of the New York Times on the newspaper’s website, and that 1,100-word story earned prominent placement on Page One of the business section of this morning’s paper.

I’ll forgive you in advance if you don’t care whether Curry continues on Today or if you don’t care whether she finds a slot elsewhere in the NBC empire, just as long as you forgive me for not giving a fig either. It’s not that I dislike Ann Curry or Today‘s first fiddle, Matt Lauer, or even Today‘s morning-show competition. It’s just that I dislike the shows for being dulled-down messes of news, entertainment and talk. If I watch any of them, it’s by accident.

My lack of interest in the morning-show mix puts me in the majority. Today, which is usually the number-one-rated program, and ABC’s Good Morning America, which took that position a couple of times this spring, draw an average of fewer than 5 million viewers. The third-ranked show, CBS’s This Morning, pulls in a little more than 2 million viewers. In a country of 311 million, that’s minimal interest.

Times public editor smashes himself with boomerang

Jack Shafer
Jan 12, 2012 23:50 UTC

New York Times Public Editor Arthur Brisbane made a huge mistake in his morning blog item titled “Should the Times Be a Truth Vigilante?” for which the Web has been punishing him all day. Brisbane’s mistake wasn’t to bring up the topic of how much time, space and effort reporters should commit to truth-squadding the iffy stuff that oozes out of the mouths of politicians, other notables and their spokesmen.

It’s a worthy topic. Brisbane’s mistake was to pose the topic as question — as if a journalist with his sort of experience didn’t know what the correct answer is — and then to stupidly ask and re-ask the question in the final paragraphs of his item, as if he were Phil Donahue with microphone in hand, rushing up and down the carpeted stairway eager to collect comments from the studio audience.

The awesome stupidity of Brisbane’s blog inspired prominent citizens of Twitterville, as well as Salon’s Alex Pareene, HuffPo’s Jason Linkins, Poynter’s Craig Silverman, New York University’s Jay Rosen, and Boing Boing’s Rob Beschizza, to take up their keyboards. “Should the New York Times — America’s ‘newspaper of record’ — print the truth?” is how Pareene restated Brisbane’s question in his lede. “Brisbane’s job is to embarrass the NY Times for its shortcomings, not to become one of them,” tweeted Village Voice Editor Tony Ortega.

You know where you can stick that Southern civility?

Jack Shafer
Nov 2, 2011 21:17 UTC

The last refuge of a bogus trend story is the claim that it “got people talking.”

If the author and editors of “A Last Bastion of Civility, the South, Sees Manners Decline” from today’s New York Times have adjourned to a coffee shop to eavesdrop on the conversation, I suspect they’re hearing what I’m thinking: Does that bold assertion come with evidence?

Here are a few examples from the  “growing portfolio” of behaviors the Times draws on to plot the decline of Southern manners.

When anonymice attack

Jack Shafer
Oct 19, 2011 00:02 UTC

Washington’s anonymous sources are disagreeing with one another today.

In the lead story in today’s New York Times (“U.S. Debated Cyberwarfare in Attack Plan on Libya”), the anonymous sources tell reporters Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker that the issue of whether or not to attack Libya with cyberweapons was “intensely debated” by the Obama administration last March.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post‘s catch-up story by Ellen Nakashima that runs on A5 in today’s print edition, disputes an important element of the Times revelation. Relying on its own anonymice, the Post piece confirms that a cyberwarfare debate took place but asserts unequivocally that the debate “did not reach the White House” according to Pentagon officials. [Emphasis added.]

Obviously, either the Times or the Post owes its readers a correction because the administration cannot have “intensely debated” cyberwar against the Libyan military at the same time that it did not. Such  a fundamental contradiction screams out for a follow-up story by both papers, but will we see them?

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