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‘Countdown’ Caps Bad Week for New York Times

Given the challenges we all face, print journalists should take no pleasure in the misfortunes of colleagues at this point. But any way you slice it, this has been a bad week for the TV coverage at the New York Times.

First, public editor Clark Hoyt wrote a column about TV critic Alessandra Stanley’s correction-filled tribute to Walter Cronkite under the headline “How Did This Happen?” In the course of that piece, Hoyt made the rather remarkable disclosure that Stanley “was the cause of so many corrections in 2005 that she was assigned a
single copy editor responsible for checking her facts.” In the wake of the Cronkite memorial, he added, she will “again get
special editing attention.”

Knowing a little something about the state of journalism, it’s hard to see many newspapers supporting a one-to-one editor-to-critic ratio under current staffing levels.

Then on Monday, Keith Olbermann returned to MSNBC’s “Countdown” and pretty much eviscerated Times reporter Brian Stelter’s Page 1 piece titled “Voices From Above Silence a Cable TV Feud.”  In it, Stelter reported that brass at parents General Electric and News Corp. had essentially brokered a truce between the feuding networks.

Olbermann had stated in the Times article that he was party to no such deal, and proceeded to prove it and then some Monday by labeling Stelter, Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly and News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch as his “Worst Persons in the World.”

Even allowing for the fact that Olbermann was having some fun by thumbing his nose at the Times and GE — and that the real goal of the truce isn’t so much to muzzle the hosts as simply tone down the rhetoric flying back and forth between the networks — it’s hard to conclude that the story wasn’t significantly overplayed, despite evidence (topped by Olbermann’s statement) that might have raised caution flags. Notably, the Los Angeles Times’ Joe Flint (full disclosure: a former colleague) took a much more measured and skeptical approach in reporting on the efforts at corporate peacemaking.

Let’s just say sometimes the hunger for a great story can get a few steps ahead of the story itself.

On the plus side, I don’t see the need for a correction. After all, Stelter did say the corporate intervention regarding the feud was designed to “bring it to at least a temporary end.” The paper just wasn’t specific as to precisely how temporary that was going to be.

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