Fear and Loathing on the Copy Desk: What Happens When the Alessandra Stanleys of the News Business Are Coddled, Primped and Revered
James Rainey in the Los Angeles Times has a searing look at the star system at The New York Times, which helped foster the F.U.B.A.R. assessment of Walter Cronkite by Alessandra Stanley that had more holes than your typical brick of Swiss cheese.
Rainey builds on a problem I pointed out as far back as 2005, that Times editors, particularly in the arts section, don't challenge their critics to write better or more accurately, especially Stanley.
Rainey quotes former Times public editor Byron Calame as saying "a lot of New York Times editors don't feel, in their gut, they have the right to challenge veteran and star reporters and columnists the way they need to."
And why? Maybe, as Calame suggests, it just wasn't worth the headache when it came to Stanley.
As Rainey writes:
Both of the Times' former public editors -- Daniel Okrent and Calame -- told me their critiques produced sharp rebukes from Stanley. Okrent -- who once criticized the critic for tone, not accuracy -- remembers her as "extremely defensive and hostile," while Calame said she attacked him as a nitpicker.
Stanley has been vigorously defended by Times executive editor Bill Keller, making her, as Rainey accurately labels her one of the "entitled ones."
It's a nice moniker to have, especially when your reviews make their way to the copy desk.
But what Keller and his minions have consistently forgotten, merely being able to write cleverly and intelligently dissect a TV show is not enough.
You have to first remember you are still a journalist. That means get your facts straight and let the rest flow from there. Failing that, anything else you do or say will lack resonance and be devoid of credibility. A critic is nothing without those attributes.
If Stanley is so important to the Times, then her shortcomings as a reporter need to be more closely scrutinized. It's not that she doesn't know better. She served as Rome bureau chief and a White House correspondent. You can't stay in those jobs by getting facts sort of, kind of, right.
So, it's hard to see why she -- and the Times -- blithely fail to apply the same criteria to TV criticism. The Arts pages may be in the C section, but they deserve A-list treatment. And when the Times allows Stanley to slide, as she has, it deserves an F.
UPDATE: Bill Keller responded to Editor & Publisher with the complete text of his email conversation with Rainey. He actually agrees with many of my sentiments about feckless editors. But putting them into practice is another matter altogether.