Wednesday, December 10, 2008

First Prize For The Most Absurd Justification Of A Source's Anonymity Goes To Bill Carter.

Bill Carter
In today's followup story on the new Jay Leno-NBC deal, television reporter Bill Carter interviews an unnamed executive at a network that competes with NBC on the possible impact of the decision on Conan O'Brien.

In keeping with the Times's policy that reporters must justify a source's desire for anonymity, Carter offers this:

Some competitors suggested Mr. O’Brien might be less than happy to still be following Mr. Leno. “I think this could kill Conan,” said an executive from a rival network who asked not to be identified because that network discourages executives from analyzing competitors’ decisions. “He won’t be getting a good lead-in and viewers will already have seen a late-night style show.”

The Nytpicker hereby challenges any Times reporter to top Carter's explanation, which is both convoluted and confusing -- and probably untrue. Clearly, the executive hasn't been discouraged from analyzing competitors' decisions; he's only been discouraged from doing so with his name attached. What's the point of inventing a phony reason? The real one is that whoever said it didn't want to get in trouble with his boss.

The notion that these "justifications" only further confuse the reader has already come up in internal Times discussions. A June 8, 2008 column by Public Editor Clark Hoyt addressed this point:

In an in-house critique to the staff in April, Phil Corbett, the deputy news editor in charge of the style manual, said that relying “on such standard formulas works directly against our goals in accounting for anonymous sourcing.” He said that if the source is afraid of getting in trouble with the boss, that is what the explanation should say.

In this case, saying the network discourages analyzing competitors' decisions is a roundabout euphemism that clouds the real reason for anonymity. The source didn't want to see his name in the paper; he just wanted to get across his critical view of NBC's move.

As an aside, it's worth noting that Carter's story also continues the reporter's penchant for sucking up to the NBC Universal chief executive Jeff Zucker. Nowhere in the story does Carter mention NBC's recent ratings free fall, or its shakeup of the network's development team. He does, however, present this unblemished and fawning assessment of Zucker's NBC career:

Securing Mr. Leno means that Mr. Zucker had completed what was once seen as an unlikely inside straight. He kept Mr. O’Brien when he was about to leave NBC five years ago with the promise of “The Tonight Show.” Now he has managed to keep Mr. Leno, who seemed destined for ABC.

Earlier, Mr. Zucker kept the comedy “Friends” on the air two years past its expected end date and put Matt Lauer, now the strongest anchor in morning television, on the“Today” show. Asked to rank the new deal with Mr. Leno, Mr. Zucker said “This one has got to be at the top.”

As usual, Carter neglects to ask Zucker about the things that might be at the bottom of his list. Those items might include the ratings debacle of the entire NBC schedule, and Zucker's tacit admission of defeat as a programmer by turning to Leno for five hours of primetime programming a week.

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