Keller Responds: Alessandra Stanley Is ‘Brilliant Critic’ — Dismisses ‘Conspiracy Theory’ — Future of Public Editor Position Still ‘Much Debated’

By: Joe Strupp

Alessandra Stanley, the media critic at The New York Times whose recent string of errors in a Walter Cronkite piece has drawn criticism and a harsh rebuke from the paper’s public editor, is “a brilliant critic,” says Executive Editor Bill Keller.

In comments to James Rainey of the Los Angeles Times — who wrote a piece today claiming some Times “stars” are given too much leeway, Rainey cited comments from a Q&A he conducted with Keller via e-mail.

But most of the Keller comments were not used as Rainey focused on comments from former Times public editors and other unnamed Times newsroom staffers.

When asked by E&P for comment on Stanley, Keller said he had made all of the comments he wanted to on the subject — and sent E&P the entire Rainey Q&A.

In that full document, Keller defends The New York Times’ correction practices; says that any editor who fails to confront a writer about an error because of the writer’s supposed status is failing to do their job; and admits the future of the public editor position is “much debated within our walls.”

On Stanley’s future, Keller writes: “As a general rule, we don’t talk about sanctions or disciplinary actions involving our employees. As is pretty clear from Clark’s column, Alessandra’s columns will get more careful scrutiny, which worked well in the past.”

In his defense of the Times’ correction practices, Keller writes: “On a REALLY good day they may come across something like this one, from October, 2000: ‘An article in The Times Magazine last Sunday about Ivana Trump and her spending habits misstated the number of bras she buys. It is two dozen black, two dozen beige and two dozen white, not two thousand of each.’

“But I digress. While I’m telling you what you obviously already know: One thing that sets a serious newspaper apart from most other institutions in our society is that we own up to our mistakes with corrections, editor’s notes and other accountability devices, including the public editor’s column. We hate getting stuff wrong and we work hard to avoid mistakes. But when we make them, we try to set the record straight.”

The entire Q&A with Rainey is below.
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Q: The NYT is taking considerable criticism for Ms. Stanley’s piece, with many folks learning about the error via the Public Editor’s column.

A: Just to be clear (and I’m sure you know this) we published a fulsome correction on July 22. Many folks may have learned about this episode from Clark’s column, but many (including Clark) learned about it because we published a correction, which is also appended in perpetuity to the archived article. The evidence for what I’m about to say is purely anecdotal, but I think a lot of readers check the Corrections column with the same avidity they apply to the obits. On a good day they will come across something like our March 11 correction of a 1906 article that inaccurately cited the text of an inscription inside Abraham Lincoln’s pocket watch. On a REALLY good day they may come across something like this one, from October, 2000: “An article in The Times Magazine last Sunday about Ivana Trump and her spending habits misstated the number of bras she buys. It is two dozen black, two dozen beige and two dozen white, not two thousand of each.”

But I digress.

While I’m telling you what you obviously already know: One thing that sets a serious newspaper apart from most other institutions in our society is that we own up to our mistakes with corrections, editor’s notes and other accountability devices, including the public editor’s column. We hate getting stuff wrong and we work hard to avoid mistakes. But when we make them, we try to set the record straight.

Q: Has the public editor helped build the Times’ reputation, or done more to knock the paper’s reputation down? It may help to address this question both as it pertains to this particular episode and, more generally, over the brief history of public editorship.

A: On balance, I think the fact that we offer a paycheck and a platform to an independent critic to second-guess our journalistic judgments is good for, pardon the expression, the brand. I don’t always agree with our public editor, but I think he is fair-minded, his reporting is meticulous, and his targets — as in this case — are usually fair game. He doesn’t just blow raspberries. He tries to explain how bad things happen, and he reports what we are trying to do to avoid future mistakes. Whether a public editor should be a permanent, or at least continuing, fixture at The Times is a question much debated within our walls. I’ve kicked it down the road until we near the end of Clark’s term next year.

Q: I see in Hoyt’s column that Alessandra “again will get special editing attention” Is that true? What will this special attention be, exactly? Is she subject to any other sanction by the paper?

A: As a general rule, we don’t talk about sanctions or disciplinary actions involving our employees. As is pretty clear from Clark’s column, Alessandra’s columns will get more careful scrutiny, which worked well in the past. Likewise the obituary desk, which Clark (and our internal data) identify as a disproportionate source of corrections. (In part that may be because obits tend to have at least a few readers who know the subject very well and care enough to tell us if we get something wrong.)

Q: I’ve talked to some folks inside the paper (who don’t want to be named) and to Barney Calame who say that the Times runs into particular trouble when it comes to some of its stars, like Alessandra. The perception is that editors are more hesitant about questioning what these star reporters/columnists/critics do. Your response?

A: If any editor finds a factual error in any piece by any writer at this paper and fails to point it out because the writer might yell or because the writer is thought to be a favorite, then that editor is failing to do his or her job. Stars or purported stars are obliged to get their facts right. Editors are obliged to edit everyone without fear or favor. Period.

Q: Specifically, some people inside the paper believe that Alessandra has been allowed to continue as a critic, without sufficient punishment, because she is close with Jill Abramson. Your response?

A: We love a conspiracy theory, but the truth is simple: Alessandra has been allowed to continue as a critic because she is — in my opinion, among others — a brilliant critic.


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