08/04/2009 07:14 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Oops - my bad

In the wake of both the Jayson Blair scandal and the shameful Judith Miller coverage of WMDs in the run-up to the Iraq invasion., there's not a lot that would surprise me about the foibles of the New York Times.

But I was brought up short by something I read in the column of the Times' public editor, Clark Hoyt, this past Sunday.

It was part of his piece scourging the Times' culture desk and copy desk for missing seven separate mistakes in its obituary and appreciation of Walter Cronkite after his death. The errors, Hoyt said, were the result of a perfect storm of overworked and inattentive editors and reporters, each of whom assumed someone else had already double-checked the facts in the stories they were reading and so did little or no fact-checking of their own.

But that wasn't what caught my attention. Shit happens, particularly in this age of newspaper downsizing. A recent article pointed out the drastic jump in typos at the Washington Post since a round of layoffs decimated its ranks of copy editors. One has to assume that it's an epidemic across what's left of American newspapers.

No, what stopped me was a passage about Times TV critic Alessandra Stanley, who had been responsible for some of the Cronkite mistakes:

"For all her skills as a critic, Stanley was the cause of so many corrections in 2005 that she was assigned a single copy editor responsible for checking her facts. Her error rate dropped precipitously and stayed down after the editor was promoted and the arrangement was discontinued. Until the Cronkite errors, she was not even in the top 20 among reporters and editors most responsible for corrections this year. Now, she has jumped to No. 4 and will again get special editing attention."

My first thought was: How does this woman keep her job? If she's making enough mistakes that she needs her own remedial copy editor to hold her correction boxes to a single page, maybe they're solving the wrong problem.

Earlier in the same piece, Hoyt referred to Stanley as "a prolific writer much admired by editors for the intellectual heft of her coverage of television." But if she can't get the facts straight two days in a row, how much heft does that intellect really have?

I was always taught that a critic was, first and foremost, a reporter. Just as a reporter on the police beat told readers about events he'd seen that they hadn't, so a critic was telling readers about a work - a play, a movie, a TV show - that they hadn't seen yet. Which meant getting the facts right before you started slinging opinions.

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