Saturday, July 18, 2009

That's Not The Way It Is: In Cronkite Appraisal, Alessandra Stanley Gets Several Facts Wrong. Again.

Television critic Alessandra Stanley's reign of error returned this morning with three key mistakes in her appraisal of Walter Cronkite.

These three errors put Stanley back on pace for a double-digit year -- perhaps not the record-breaker we'd predicted back in February, when Stanley seemed headed for a 60-correction year, but nevertheless an impressive achievement for a reporter whose primary job is to watch television.

In Stanley's arts section essay appraising Cronkite's career, Stanley records three whoppers in quick succession:

When he took over from Douglas Edwards in 1962, Mr. Cronkite would announce the day’s events, and then, as anchors do now, turn to correspondents in the field. Those reporters — and in the early 1960s the CBS A-team included Mike Wallace, Howard K. Smith and Morley Safer — often read their reports sitting at desks in front of curtains in out-of-town studios, as stiff and unsmiling as hostages in a ransom tape.

In fact, Howard K. Smith left CBS News in a huff in 1961 to become a correspondent at ABC, nearly a full year before Cronkite took over as the anchor of the CBS broadcast.

Viewers mostly associate him with calamity, but he liked to align himself with good news, shedding his famed neutrality to express boyish enthusiasm for what he called, somewhat quaintly, “the conquest of space.” (His first words when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon on July 20, 1969, were “Oh, boy.”)

In fact, Cronkite famously uttered the words "Oh boy!" when the lunar module touched down on the moon's surface, not when Amstrong walked on the moon.

But he didn’t turn into “Uncle Walter” overnight, and his last name didn’t become synonymous with television news until well into the 1970s. For many years “The Huntley-Brinkley Report” on NBC had higher ratings and more pizzazz; CBS caught up only after Chet Huntley retired in 1970.

In fact, Cronkite's ratings surpassed "The Huntley-Brinkley Report" in 1967, and the Cronkite newscast remained number-one until his retirement in 1981.

[UPDATE: The NYT has appended a correction to Stanley's column, noting three other errors The NYTPicker missed! That brings the total number of errors to six:

An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to a news organization for which Walter Cronkite worked. At the time, it was called United Press, not United Press International. The earlier version also misstated the date of the first moon landing; it was July 20, 1969, not July 26. And it misspelled Telstar.]

Other statements, while not outright errors, don't measure up as an accurate appraisal.

For one thing, Stanley's description of Cronkite as "closer to homely than handsome" strikes us as an inept description of the man whose windswept mane of white hair, clipped moustache, crinkly eyes and engaging smile made him appealing to millions.

At another point, Stanley says, "He made history just by rising from that desk to check the wires." But in virtually all of the truly historic moments in Cronkite's early career, including the Kennedy assassination report to which she refers, Cronkite was handed wire copy at his desk. A small mistake, perhaps, but still indicative of the kind of carelessness that pervades Stanley's work.

It's sad to see the career of so iconic a figure in American history get such sloppy treatment at the hands of a critic who had weeks to prepare for this moment. But in much the way America came to count on Cronkite for the facts, NYT readers have come to count on Alesssandra Stanley for the careless mistakes that continue to dominate her career.


Anonymous said...

The reason why viewers might not think Cronkite was handed the wires and other copy is that a key producer was literally stationed hunched down beneath the famous desk. For many years, it was the semi-well-known Tom Phillips.

Barth said...

I think you would find that the ratings were very close from about 1967 until 1970 when Chet Huntley retired. Frequently H-B would lead (particularly around convention and election time---this got Salant's craw and caused CBS to bounce him off the 1964 Democratic Convention--) but I found the article goofy, too. I was in college at the same time she described and he and Chancellor were considered voices from the past by my peers (though, not the premature oldster writing this comment).

Anonymous said...

I note an interesting observation on the nytpicker's use of the word "iconic" in the last paragraph of this story. Read Joe Queenan in the WSJ Opinion section today to see what the fuss is about.

Anonymous said...

the new york times is writing about raising a puppy. oh for pete's sake!

Anonymous said...

the nyt makes its interns fact-check more than what they make stanley do. how does this keep happening with her? shouldn't the copy editors be on high alert when they get something with her byline on it?

Anonymous said...

Seriously. Given that she can't be bothered to google the name of a TV show, it really makes you wonder about those years she spent running the NYT's Rome and Moscow bureaus.

Anonymous said...

Since Ms Stanley keeps screwing up on so many stories, my question is, why hasn't she simply been fired long ago????

Americans have come to accept incompetence everywhere, from the news room to the hospital, to aviation and teaching and constuction. If more lazy and incompetent people -- including reporters and editors were fired as a matter of routine, we'd have a much better country.