July 2, 2012

New York Times Culture Editor Jonathan Landman said he and Executive Editor Jill Abramson accept some of the responsibility for Alessandra Stanley’s mistakes in a story last week about Ann Curry’s farewell episode of the “Today” show.

The editors had encouraged Stanley to watch the morning show as well as coverage of the Supreme Court’s health care ruling. “We probably loaded on more than was reasonable,” Landman said.

Stanley wrote in her story that “Today” aired a highlight reel on the show; it turned out that she had watched a year-old video clip online. That highlight reel included an exchange between Matt Lauer and Curry that Stanley misinterpreted. She also incorrectly reported that Savannah Guthrie, who replaced Curry as co-anchor, appeared on Thursday’s show. Landman emphasized in a phone interview that he wasn’t trying to minimize the errors, which he called “serious.”

According to Landman, Stanley watched part of “Today,” then switched over to watch the Supreme Court coverage. She then checked the “Today” website to see what she had missed. The video with the highlight reel auto-played after the segment in which Curry said goodbye. Stanley thought the highlights were part of Thursday’s show, although Lauer says in the 2011 video that Curry was being welcomed as co-anchor.

There’s no reason a copy editor would have caught that kind of mistake, Landman added.

The portion of the “Today” show on which Curry made her tearful goodbye aired just before 9 a.m. EDT; the Supreme Court ruling was announced shortly after 10 a.m., although some networks began their live coverage earlier.

“I can’t — cannot, don’t mean to, will not — defend any mistake,” Landman said. “I wish we made zero mistakes.” However, he said, “there’s been nothing in recent years that would lead you to single her out as anything close to a problem.” Stephanie Goodman, Stanley’s editor, told him that Stanley’s raw copy doesn’t have an unusual number of mistakes.

Landman detailed all the corrections he found in the Times’ archives for Stanley’s stories in 2011 and 2012. For 2011, he counted 11 correction notes, two of which were due to editing errors. One of the corrections addressed multiple errors in a single story, an obituary for Elena Bonner. Landman said that Stanley had written the story years ago when she was Moscow bureau chief, and it was co-bylined, so he can’t say with certainty that the mistakes were her fault.

Stanley had 99 bylines last year, Landman said. “For someone with close to 100 bylines a year, that’s a damn good record,” he said.

“The seriousness of them, the type of them, does not suggest sloppiness or inattention or certainly not ill will or bias or anything of that kind. They are the kinds of mistakes that unfortunately happen when people are working fast, as we do in this line of work.”

Before last week, Stanley’s count for 2012 was four corrections, including two on one story. Counting the new corrections on Curry’s story, she’s at six for the year.

One of the corrections addressed what Landman called an “imprecise paraphrase,” for a story about Bloomberg TV:

The TV Watch column on Tuesday, about “Titans at the Table” on Bloomberg TV, in mentioning rivals to Bloomberg, paraphrased incorrectly a comment by a Fox Business Network anchor about the cost to taxpayers of fuel used on Air Force One. He said, “Not a lot of other options, not like he’s going to fly Southwest or something.” He did not suggest that President Obama fly Southwest Airlines.

Landman acknowledged that Stanley’s work has been error-prone in the past, but said she now checks her stories multiple times. For two upcoming stories on television in Haiti, she ran everything by her translator, among other things, and she caught a few mistakes when she asked the translator to review the finished story before publication.

In addition, Stanley’s stories are supposed to be copy-edited by one of four copy editors who are familiar with her work, Landman said.

Similar arrangements, though perhaps not as formal, exist elsewhere in the newsroom to deal with certain reporters. Some reporters, “it’s just astonishing how few mistakes they make,” Landman said. “Some are more human than others; the editors here know who those people are.”

Stanley did not end up writing about coverage of the Supreme Court ruling.

Related: NBC News president: Alessandra Stanley’s story on Ann Curry was ‘bad journalism’

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Steve Myers was the managing editor of Poynter.org until August 2012, when he became the deputy managing editor and senior staff writer for The Lens,…
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