Under the headline "How Did This Happen?" Public Editor Clark Hoyt today purports to address Alessandra Stanley's famously-flawed appraisal of Walter Cronkite on July 18, and to explain how the TV critic could end up with a whopping 8-error correction.
But while Hoyt names several editors who failed to catch the mistakes in Stanley's piece, he ignores the deeper question on readers' minds. How does a television critic who has had 91 corrections of her work in just six years get to keep her job?
Nowhere in Hoyt's 1,228-word essay today does the Public Editor address the question of what consequences Stanley has faced as a result of her epic fail on July 18. By focusing on the mechanics of the screw-up -- which includes naming editors who read the piece and who didn't fact-check it -- Hoyt bypasses the issue of a systemic breakdown at the NYT that led to the error-riddled essay.
Hoyt says that Stanley is "much admired by editors for the intellectual heft" of her reviews, as though to be an "intellectual" has nothing to do with accuracy. Hoyt presumably knows that any "intellectual" whose work carried this many corrections wouldn't warrant much respect in the intellectual community.
Hoyt also neglects to mention Stanley's longstanding close ties to the NYT's power structure, especially her membership in a close-knit group of friends that includes managing editor Jill Abramson, columnist Maureen Dowd, and book critic Michiko Kakutani. Last winter, Dowd -- whose own recent plagiarism troubles were whitewashed by Hoyt and NYT management -- wrote a travel piece about a spa vacation in Florida she took with Stanley. Do those relationships contribute to Stanley's job security? They can't hurt.
Hoyt makes frequent references to "fact-checking," as though that is a standard part of NYT procedure. But as the Public Editor should know, NYT policy specifically makes fact-checking the responsibility of the reporter, not the copy desk or section editors.
"Writers at The Times are their own principal fact checkers and often their only ones," the NYT's Guildelines on Integrity states (emphasis added). "If deadline pressure requires skipping a check, the editors should be alerted with a flag like 'desk, please verify,' but ideally the writer should double back for the check after filing; usually the desk can accommodate a last-minute repair."
Hoyt's naming of editors who read the column, and who failed to flag errors, unfairly spreads the blame for Stanley's mistakes to editors with a multitude of responsibilities -- none of which include fact-checking the work of reporters.
"We cannot tolerate this," standards editor Craig Whitney tells Hoyt. Culture editor Sam Sifton calls it "a disaster." But Hoyt doesn't quote either editor addressing Stanley's longstanding reputation as a careless reporter -- or say what the NYT specifically plans to do to keep Stanley from making mistakes in the future.
The NYT has "tightened procedures to rule out a recurrence," Whitney tells Hoyt, adding that he will "monitor implementation of these measures." But Hoyt doesn't press Whitney to detail those procedures or measures. As usual, the always-forgiving Hoyt takes the NYT at its word.
Hoyt also goes to great lengths to excuse Stanley's history, as well as her responsibility -- even though he quotes Stanley herself saying, "This is my fault."
"For all her skills as a critic," Hoyt writes, "Stanley was the cause of so many corrections in 2005 that she was assigned a single copy editor responsible for checking her facts." Translation: Stanley was so error-prone that that the NYT rewarded her with her own personal fact-checker!
Anyway, isn't part of the "skills" of a critic to correctly report on the industry she covers, without a copy editor's help? Stanley's errors have included getting basic plot points wrong, or names of well-known TV shows -- she once referred to the hit series "Everybody Loves Raymond" as "All About Raymond." Should it really be such a challenge for a TV critic to get simple facts straight?
Don't look to Hoyt for answers to the real questions raised by the Stanley situation. His wimpy whitewashes of the NYT's ongoing managerial failures consistently let his employers off the hook. Every day that Stanley remains the NYT's television critic, the question of why her employers keep her in that job remain unanswered.