After Cronkite died, the New York Times ran a brief essay about him that contained a disastrous number of factual mistakes. The NYT’s public editor (or ombudsman) tells us:

The newspaper had wrong dates for historic events; gave incorrect information about Cronkite’s work, his colleagues and his program’s ratings; misstated the name of a news agency, and misspelled the name of a satellite.

The ombudsman says no one subjected the piece to “rigorous fact-checking,” but what he means is that they didn’t check Wikipedia. It’s not hard to find out what day Martin Luther King was shot. Of course none of the details matter so much. The disaster is just that now people can laugh at the Times and wonder what the hell its people are up to. Or, as the ombudsman puts it: “Seemingly little mistakes, when they come in such big clusters, undermine the authority of a newspaper … “(If you want to join in, the article and its two corrections are here. By my count the corrections add up to 249 words.) 

The ombudsman offers a sweeping explanation for what happened: a whole lot of people screwed up. He isolates one solid factor, namely that the article wasn’t on deadline and therefore everyone figured they’d have time for it later. From his description, it would also appear that the Times piles so many editors on a given story (this is called “layers of editing”) that people may get mixed up about who’s doing what and assume the niggly stuff is being covered by someone else.

This pair of factors explains why feature articles at big-deal publications are always so full of mistakes about material available by browser. Except that they aren’t, really. So the ombudsman article doesn’t explain anything. It just shows that when the Times is embarrassed enough about something small enough (Telstar, damn it, not Telestar!), a gang of screw-ups will shuffle forward to hang their heads and take their licks. 

If so many people screwed up so badly, the logical line of inquiry would be to look for a common thread that connected them but did not rope in hordes of people at other institutions, people who had not committed a similar clusterfuck. That is, why is it that the Times hired such a bunch of incompetents? Or, if they’re not incompetent, how did the Times arrange matters so as to drive them into such a slipshod performance? It’s called the systemic approach to a problem.

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