New York Times Fires, Fake News Hires

Executive editor Dean Baquet fired half his copy editors and put a great brand on a slippery slope

Fact checkers out

Recently, New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet and his heir apparent, Joseph Kahn, announced they were firing half their fact checkers. If you were like most of the world, you clicked to the next story. Inside baseball, nothing more?

Not this time. Fire all the reporters you want, but when you cut the copy desk, you are losing the thing that stands between your credibility and your greed.

The New York Times disagrees, of course, blaming economic circumstances. That is understood. But by giving reporters less accountability at a time when journalists are held in the lowest esteem in recent history, the cost savings are likely to prove illusory. Libel insurance, distractions from angry advertisers scorned by irate readers, and in some cases, outright journalistic negligence, will be the fallout.

Will the New York Times change its tagline, all the news that’s fit to stint?

No grade school teacher checked mistakes like this

During my 20 years at Forbes Magazine, where I was the publisher, we took great pride in our independent checkers whose only job was to find fault with reporter’s facts. Conclusions and opinions were not their bailiwick, just facts. But when they issued a correction, editors had to scramble back and rethink conclusions. Then resubmit corrected versions to the fact checkers. This had the intended effect on reporters, it ‘literally’ made them think twice. The result was a much better story (for which the reporters took all the credit).

Fake news is in

The top 10 fake news articles of 2016 were all political articles that pulled a million shares or more each, beating many regular news media channels. We can hardly blame the Russians for wanting a piece of that action by hiring $15 an hour Macedonian trolls to write articles defaming presidential candidates. Good work if you can get it.

Fake news breeds in the petri dish of disbelief. The media is distrusted by 82% of the countries in the world according to Edelman’s Trust Barometer. That makes fake news a potential growth industry. Unlike traditional journalism. Why?

The traditional media opened the gates for fake news through biased reporting during a divisive election. With a mega reduction in fact checking accuracy, credibility is bound to sink lower. Revenues tend to follow credibility.

So what happens when we live in a world in which no one checks facts any more? The good news is we have a splendid example to share.

Twain died, right? (needs checking)

Samuel Langhorne Clemens (November 30, 1835 — April 21, 1910), better known by his pen name Mark Twain

There is a date and a name that means very little to most of us. But it was one of the most sensational fact checking blunders in American journalism.

Mark Twain’s letter to editor debunking his death rumor (note James Clemens recovered)

In London, on the morning of June 2, 1897, a man named James Clemens fell gravely ill. He was wealthy so his condition was of some interest to the locals, and as he was an American, the news found its way to our shores. An ambitious reporter for a major newspaper of the time, the New York Journal, came across the blurb on the telegraph wire, and through a hurried reading noted the illness as a death and wrote up the obituary, his first mistake. Then he compounded the error by making a more fatal, if you will forgive, faux pas. He misnamed the man “Samuel”, which happened to be the name of James Clemens’ famous nephew. Only Sam Clemens was better known in these parts as Mark Twain. He may have been the most celebrated author in the world.

Clemens was minding his own business, probably negotiating the rights to his sequel to Tom Sawyer, when when he opened the paper and noticed his name in the obits. He didn’t let it flummox him. He quickly penned out a response for the telegraph agent:

“The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”

It became the most well known correction in journalism. Everyone who didn’t know he died now knew the newspaper had goofed in a surreal way.

There are many epitaphs to this story, if you will forgive a second bad pun. But the one I like best: The New York Journal no longer exists.

A good fact checker, Sam Clemens reminds the world, can be a life or death matter.