October 12, 2000
comments powered by Disqus
A "cranky" executive editor of the New York Times is urging his top editors to "pay attention to persistent accuracy problems" at the paper, comparing the mistakes to "carpenter ants nibbling at the beams that hold the thing together."
Sounding themes that will be familiar to regular readers of Smartertimes.com, the executive editor, Joseph Lelyveld, made his remarks during a gathering of more than 80 Times editors at Tarrytown, N.Y. last month. For a full text of the remarks, a copy of which was obtained by Smartertimes.com, click here.
Mr. Lelyveld's speech is a signal that he is determined to improve the accuracy of the paper. To be sure, he claims the current newspaper is "the best New York Times ever." But the paper could still stand some improvement, to judge by the litany of errors Mr. Lelyveld cited in his speech. And, to judge by the same speech -- in which Mr. Lelyveld warned that "the attitude sometimes seems to be that accuracy is a preoccupation of petty minds, and that any highlighting of failure is a relapse to the bad old days" -- the curmudgeonly executive editor has his work cut out for him in asserting authority over an entrenched layer of mid-ranking editors who needed a lecture from their boss on journalism basics.
Mr. Lelyveld said in the remarks that he was worried about "tiny but persistent signs that we sometimes don't take the small stuff seriously enough; that we sometimes don't take the small stuff seriously at all."
He asked his staff: "Did you know we've misspelled Katharine Graham's name 14 times? Or that we've misspelled the Madeleine in Madeleine Albright 49 times -- even while running three corrections on each?"
Mr. Lelyveld said that the Times had printed 1,739 corrections in the first 255 days of this year, up a total of 173 corrections from the year before. He said there have been 198 corrections this year for misspelled given names and surnames, "the overwhelming majority easily checkable on the Internet."
He said the newspaper had run corrections three times in recent months on the provisions of U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, a basis of Arab-Israeli negotiations.
The view here is that Mr. Lelyveld deserves credit for illuminating this problem and for expressing a desire to fix it. That takes some courage, particularly given the natural tendency of top-ranking leaders of any enterprise to insist that all is well, and particularly given the ever-present legal risks of the out-of-control American tort law system. Imagine the attorney for a plaintiff suing the Times in a libel case: "So, Mr. Lelyveld, just when was it that you realized that there were 'persistent accuracy problems' at the Times?"
But even given the boldness of Mr. Lelyveld's move, we're not terribly sanguine about his chances for success. Consider the structural obstacles: the Tarrytown retreat, according to the internal Times report obtained by Smartertimes.com, was attended by "more than 80 senior newsroom editors." Even for a newspaper as big as the Times, this is almost comical. If there are more than 80 "senior newsroom editors," imagine how many non-senior "newsroom editors" there are. And imagine how many senior non-newsroom editors there are, hard at work in their senior editorial positions at locations like, well, like where other than a newsroom would a senior editor get much work done anyway? This, combined with the grand gesture of flying in an actor specially from Norway (as Mr Lelyveld himself said, "I'm not making that up.") to perform at the retreat, convey the image of the Times as a massive, bloated, unmaneuverable bureaucracy like General Motors or IBM before their falls.
Also working against Mr. Lelyveld's chances of success would appear to be his own apparent curiously spectator-like stance with respect to the errors at a newspaper where he is, after all, the top-ranking news executive. In his speech, Mr. Lelyveld exhorted his subordinates to take up the accuracy issue "in face-to-face conversations and, where such discussions fail to do the trick, in the evaluations you write." In one case, he said, he himself nixed a publisher's award that had been suggested for "a correspondent whose stories had given rise to four corrections in two weeks." Call us cranky, but our view is that this isn't the sort of thing that would set most grizzled newsroom veterans to quaking in their reporter shoes -- a mention in an evaluation, getting passed over for the publisher's award. A harder-edged approach would be to say to whichever editor or reporter is responsible for getting Resolution 242 wrong three times or spelling Ms. Albright's name wrong 49 times: "Look, either you figure out a way to get this right or I'm going to find someone else to do your job who can get it right." This might be considered a return to what Mr. Lelyveld termed in his speech "the bad old days," but it is the way many small businesses are run in competitive industries in which quality really matters. Again, one drawback is that, with more than 80 "senior newsroom editors," it's hard to pin down accountability. There could have been a different editor responsible for each of the 49 misspellings of Ms. Albright's name, and the Times would still have more than 31 senior newsroom editors to spare, not to mention the junior newsroom editors and all those senior non-newsroom editors.
Mr. Lelyveld's accuracy push could also create some perverse incentives. If reporters and editors are going to be penalized for corrections, there's a greater likelihood that they will let errors slide by uncorrected that are caught only after the newspaper is printed. After all, the increased number of corrections that Mr. Lelyveld bemoaned in his speech doesn't necessarily indicate a plummeting level of accuracy; it could just indicate a greater willingness to correct mistakes. A greater willingness to correct mistakes is something that it makes sense to encourage.
One suggestion that Mr. Lelyveld made on the craft of getting names spelled correctly can itself be a dangerous technique in the wrong hands. He said in his speech that the paper "misspelled Stendhal and attached a nonexistent first name to that nom de plume. A visit to Amazon.com, just a couple of clicks away, could have cleared up the confusion." Never mind the politically incorrect plug for Amazon. (The Times has a corporate partnership with Amazon's competitor, Barnes & Noble.com.) It would be easy for some thickheaded copy editor to type the wrong spelling of an author's name into Amazon, come up with some book listings misspelled by an equally thickheaded copy editor employed by Amazon, and proceed blissfully under the incorrect assumption that the spelling of the name has been verified. You can go to Amazon.com yourself and check this out: plug in the misspelled author name Stendahl and you get plenty of hits, not just for the eminent theologian Krister Stendahl but for the author whose name the Times was trying to spell. This is especially true for authors with easily misspelled names: one incorrect spelling for the Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, using the last name "Weisel," will turn up four books in the Amazon.com listings. Amazon.com can be useful for checking names if you carefully check the spelling on the image of the book cover, but if the Times has in mind subcontracting its process for correctly spelling names to some dot-com e-commerce company, it might want to rethink the idea.
Finally, Mr. Lelyveld's focus on the "small stuff," and his comment about the errors on Resolution 242 -- he said the corrections provided "great cheer and sustenance to those readers who are convinced we are opinionated and not well informed on Middle East issues" -- suggest that a fix on the "big stuff" that is wrong with the Times is a long way from coming. As one of those readers who is convinced the Times is opinionated and not well informed on Middle East issues, we can say that we are not at all cheered or sustained when the Times publishes corrections on those issues. We'd much prefer that the paper got it right the first time. And in fact, the Times is opinionated on the matters of a negotiated settlement in the Middle East, tax cuts, abortion rights, the death penalty and a host of other issues. That is nothing to be ashamed of; many Times readers doubtless agree with many of the newspaper's opinions. But those readers who don't are often frustrated. The Times could spell Ms. Albright's name correctly 1,000 times out of 1,000, but so long as it is cheerleading for her policy of moral equivalency aimed at pressuring Israel into more unilateral concessions, the newspaper is still going to be problematic for its readers who have a different opinion. Responsibility for that rests in the final analysis not with Mr. Lelyveld. Bright and dedicated and courageous though he is, he is a hired hand of the newspaper's owning family.
Subscribe to the Mailing List
© 2017 FutureOfCapitalism LLC