Gray Lady flunks Journalism 101

The New York Times confessed on Tuesday that some of its writers and editors are habitually and inexcusably careless and/or incompetent.

I realize I devote a lot of space to the malpractice of journalism at the Times. That’s partly because I pay it $20 a month and expect my money’s worth, but mostly because if the Times totally turns to shit, we might as well flush the entire business.

When I was teaching first-year journalism students, they received a failing grade on a story if they spelled a proper noun wrong.

Yet we get what follows from the Times’s style maven, Philip B. Corbett, in a column titled After Deadline, Newsroom Notes on Usage and Style:

“When readers point out errors – and they do, frequently – a common refrain goes like this: If you can’t even get the name right, how do I know whether the rest of this story is accurate?”

You don’t know.

“Names are the single biggest source of errors for us. So far this month we’ve had to correct 65 errors in people’s names – 33 surnames and 32 given names.”

Now that Al Hirschfeld is dead – I may have misspelled his name since my only source was his obit in the Times – readers who enjoyed looking for Ninas in his caricatures can now search for Neenas throughout the paper.

“Of course, we are publishing more copy, more quickly, than ever before. But with the entire web instantly accessible, it’s also easier and faster than ever to check and double-check.”

Writers might slow down and get it right if every one who misspelled a name was fired.

“Some basic reminders for reporters and editors:”

Thus, we begin a New York Times checklist similar to the one I gave my students.  

  • In every interview, ask the subject to spell his or her name.
  • When checking online, be sure the source is reliable; don’t assume all Google results are definitive.
  • Don’t just check how we spelled the name last time – our archive is, among other things, a minefield of past errors.
  • Copy editors should check as many names as humanly possible.”

Or hire better humans.

  • If you couldn’t double-check before the first deadline, do it afterward.
  • Be wary of names with common variants — Stephen and Steven, O’Neil and O’Neill and O’Neal.
  • Don’t rely on memory.”

You mean it’s not Arthur Oaks Sulzburger?

“Here’s a sampling of recent missteps that might shake the faith of any reader. On Oct. 14 alone, we had three corrections for given names:

  • An earlier version of this article misstated the given name of the father of Charlotte and Stella. He is Matt, not Mac.”

Don’t call me Mac, mac.

  • “An earlier version of this article misspelled the given name of one of the owners of Mamagyro. She is Vicki Giannopoulos, not Vicky.”

You got Giannopoulos right — and not Vicki!

  • “An earlier version of this post misstated a composer’s given name. He is Heinz Holliger, not Hans”

You should have called the secret police to demand his papers.

“And on Oct. 2 alone, we had to correct three surnames:

  • “An earlier version of this article misspelled the surname of a columnist based in Alabama; he is Kyle Whitmire, not Whitmore.”

This guy has had his byline in your paper, for Christ’s sake.

  • “An earlier version of this article misspelled part of the name of a government minister. He is Miguel Poiares Maduro, not Miguel Poiares Maduros.”

Ah, the singular Mr. Maduro.

  • “An article on Thursday about Mexico’s most recent auction of offshore oil leases misstated the surname of a lawyer with Holland & Knight who commented on the results. He is José Antonio Prado, not Pardo.”

Si, Don Pardo de Sabado Noche en Directo died last year.

***

The executive editor of the Times, Dean Baquet, appears to be a publicity junkie.

Instead of defending his paper with an appropriate statement – We stick by our story, or We’ll fix it – Baquet can’t resist talking to other news outlets or skirmishing with the Times’s public editor.

On Monday, he told the Washington Post that Times columnist Maureen Dowd did not fabricate a deathbed scene between Joe Biden and his son, Beau.

Since she never wrote that – others, including the Times, later embellished Dowd’s reporting – why bother.

This came a week after Baquet dueled with Amazon over a front-page hatchet job the Times published in August about working conditions at the giant retailer.

It was no surprise that Jay Carney, Obama’s former press secretary and now the chief flack at Amazon, wrote a 1,300-word indictment seeking to discredit a few of the Times’s key sources.

That Baquet deigned to fire back with a 1,300-word defense confirms the piece is indefensible.

Didn’t he have his fill of this story playing point-counterpoint with his paper’s public editor, Margaret Sullivan, last summer?

Sullivan concluded the Amazon “article was driven less by irrefutable proof than by generalization and anecdote. For such a damning result, presented with so much drama, that doesn’t seem like quite enough.”

Baquet’s counterpoint: “I reject the notion that you can report a story like this in any way other than with anecdotes. You talk to as many people as possible and you draw conclusions. That’s the only way to approach it.”

Why do I hear Dan Aykroyd shouting, “Jane, you ignorant slut”?

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