Integrity is critical to a journalistic organization. Nevertheless, integrity has been in increasingly short supply throughout the news media world as the pressures of increasing competition and decreasing revenue have led many once-proud institutions to abandon principles and standards. The New York Times, once the exemplar of integrity, has hardly been immune from this problem, but apparently it still is capable of making a stand for the best of journalistic traditions. When a Times retrospective on CBS news icon Walter Cronkite was published despite being riddled with typos and factual errors, the paper’s “public editor,” Clark Hoyt pulled no punches by criticizing his own employer.
Hoyt, the Times ombudsman, did not let things rest with the Times’ embarrassing “correction” to the article, a lengthy list of goofs that approached absurdity: the paper gave wrong dates for historic events, wrong information about Cronkite’s work, misstated the name of a news agency, and misspelled the name of a satellite. He wrote a full expose of the flawed process that led to the mistakes, calling out specific staff members for criticism. “A television critic with a history of errors wrote hastily and failed to double-check her work, and editors who should have been vigilant were not,” he began. Hoyt’s conclusion, after tracing numerous failures of diligence and communication: “Looking back at it all — a critic making mistakes in haste, editors failing to vet her work enough, a story sitting for weeks without attention and then being rushed through — one sees how small missteps lead to big trouble, leaving readers to wonder what they can trust.”
It is rare for any organization (or individual, for that matter) to be objective and unsparing when self-examination is necessary, and rarer still for an organization to make a harsh self-assessment public. For Clark Hoyt, doing so was necessary to assert the New York Times’ organizational integrity, and to restore the public’s trust.
Let us hope he starts a trend.