Thursday, August 6, 2009

Close Enough for Horseshoes, Grenades and the New York Times

It's so hard for me to read news about Dan Rather because, to put it bluntly, the guy is a schmuck and an unrepentant liar, and he's rarely called on it by his colleagues. He recently called for the big ol' friendly Federal Government to bail out the journalism industrial complex–which of course means the liberal media establishment–because no one reads their crap anymore. The jury is still out on why he is making these noises; is he jockeying for a Media Czar position, or does he just want to make sure CBS is solvent enough to dole out a settlement in his brand new $70,000,000.00 lawsuit against his former employer?

Unclear. But the memory of Rather's demise perfectly segues into the recent flap about Allesandra Stanley's pathetic mistake-laden tribute to Walter Cronkite. James Rainey attempts to probe the causes of this failure, while still remaining respectful of the Times. It's sort of a high-wire act, IMO, but yields some humor, if no particularly new insights about how hesitant news companies are to correct on-going problems.

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.

Ya think?

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.

Ah. Got it. This is the same "license" that allowed Dan Rather to use forged documents to support a charge that George Bush missed a required physical exam while in the National Guard. Rather never claimed that Bush literally missed the exam.

Would anyone at the Times suggest aloud that she is jealous of Geraldo Rivera whose name is much more of a household word across the country? I'm sure they wouldn't dare if the following is true:

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.

A guess one man's tone is another's... nit.

"Stars or purported stars are obliged to get their facts right," the Times editor said. "Editors are obliged to edit everyone without fear or favor. Period."

Since it's not so clear that lesson has become ingrained deeply enough with everyone in the organization, it makes sense that the paper keeps an independent public editor on the payroll.

You see, this is all lip-service. Rainey is defending the Times for publishing corrections at the same time that he is scolding them for letting them happen. The fact is that people like Alessandra Stanley know that they have "star capital" and they live off the interest. Why should she accept any criticism? For a star journalist, making eight errors in print doesn't merit immediate punishment like throwing one interception might for a star quarterback. The errors are reported a day later in another print edition, yesterday's news. She doesn't have the experience of the locker room after a loss.

Craig Silverman–who outlines Stanley's history of mistakes in his article on this topic–suggests that Stanley be enrolled in a "a training program that helps her stop making simple factual errors at such an alarming rate." I'm sure she'd be thrilled about that. If she does take the first step and admit she has a problem, maybe she'll be spared the fate of Rather, whose forged document story was not the first time he bent the truth way past "truthiness".

Ultimately the reason that people like Alessandra Stanley, Dan Rather, Keith Olbermann, Rod Dreher and many journalists like them can be so ambivalent to stubborn facts is that that they are afflicted by superiority complexes common to anyone in the species which has been called "Wordsmith Intellectuals". I've commented before on this group drawing from an essay which states that "They [wordsmith intellectuals] shape our ideas and images of society; they state the policy alternatives bureaucracies consider. From treatises to slogans, they give us the sentences to express ourselves." This makes the stars among them rather more influential than quarterbacks and their mistakes more tragic than fumbles and interceptions. I suppose to a lesser degree, I am in this class with my influential (cough) blog. That's why I called upon my readers from the very outset to please correct me when I'm wrong.


  1. Pauli,

    I've reached the conclusion that the mainstream media must die. Seriously, it needs to be completely destroyed and rebuilt from the bottom up. How that would be accomplished, I don't know. It's already very slowly dying, but it still does its damage every day. How to put a stake in its heart, I have no idea. Massive, organized boycotts? Protests? Who knows? But something's got to give.

  2. Susan, I agree with you. The old media is in trouble, but they still stagger on. I get free papers thrown in my driveway on Sunday. Why? Because it has advertising. Newspapers live on advertising--they sell ratings/readership to advertising.

    So I guess that's how they could be attacked. Whenever you cancel a subscription, write letters to advertisers notifying them as well. And tell them you loathe the newspaper and that you try not to patronize any of their advertisers. This stuff would eventually work if enough people did it. It creates doubt and fear in businesses if nothing else.