March 29, 2014

Oh, New Yorker! How far you have fallen! Your correction of a supposed "editing error" itself contains an egregious error.

"Due to an editing error, some words were omitted from one of Paul Verrilli’s quotes. They have been restored," The New Yorker appended to its Jeffrey Toobin write-up of the Supreme Court oral argument in the Hobby Lobby case — after I blogged about how embarrassing it was.

I preserved an image of it, lest it evanesce:



I included that "Get the best of The New Yorker" part, because I truly love the best of The New Yorker, and I have loved The New Yorker since long before the current editors got their hands on it, since the days when it had a famous obsession with fact-checking and meticulous editing.

Here, in an article that correctly calls Verrilli Donald Verrilli (in a sentence that I'd identified as "the stupidest sentence," the editors — making a correction to try to minimize Toobin's embarrassment — managed to swap in "Paul" as Verrilli's first name. It's as though they want to trash the magazine's reputation.

For a refresher on The New Yorker's reputation for fact-checking, here's an article by Peter Canby (from 2012) in The Columbia Journalism Review titled "Fact-Checking at The New Yorker." Excerpt:
Prior to the Tina Brown period, there were eight checkers. And particularly during the editorship of William Shawn, which was when I started—Shawn was the editor of The New Yorker from ’52 to ’87—stories progressed in an orderly, almost stately way toward publication. Writers would work on pieces for as long as they felt was useful and necessary, and that often meant years. Once the pieces were accepted, they were edited, copyedited, and fact-checked on a schedule that typically stretched out for weeks and sometimes for months....

So that was the old New Yorker. The biggest difference between David Remnick’s New Yorker today and the Shawn New Yorker is timeliness...

Under Tina [Brown], writing concepts began to originate in editors’ meetings, and assignments were given out to writers who were essentially told what to write. And a lot of what the editors wanted was designed to be timely and of the moment and tended to change from day to day. 
So... did some editor tell Toobin he had to dash off a piece about the Hobby Lobby oral argument? Did he glance at a few things and decide his angle would be War-on-Women stuff about 3 female Justices standing up for birth control versus those religionists and corporations-are-people wingers? That might explain missing that the case is about a federal statute, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and not a constitutional right to "religious expression."
So the result was that we were working on pieces that were really much more controversial and much less well-formulated than anything we had dealt with previously, and often we would put teams of checkers to work on these pieces and checking and editing could go on all night.

When the new, remade The New Yorker of the last decade was gearing up and we started getting all these late-breaking stories, issues such as logic and fairness and balance—which previously had been the responsibility of the editors—began to fall on the checkers. 
Do any of these checkers know law? Do they just trust Toobin because he's a law professor? How could he possibly get something so wrong as to mix up the Constitution and a statute?
This wasn’t by anybody’s design. It was because the editors were really busy putting these stories together and they wanted us to look at things from the outside and see how they were framed, and look at them from the inside and look at the logic and the way they were reported and the way quotes were used and many other such things.

That responsibility came to us not in the way of anybody saying suddenly, “You’re doing that.” It just became that when a problem arose, they would come to us and say, “Why didn’t you warn us?” And so it just became clear that there was this gap between editing and checking that had opened up under the pressure of later-breaking stories, and it just seemed logical that we should fill it. It made our job more challenging, and more fun.
If you were editing this article, would you accept the word "just" used 3 times in one paragraph? I sure wouldn't. But Canby is a fact-checking expert, not a word-editing expert (apparently). There's nothing factually wrong with repeating the word "just," though it does seem to be expressing how little thought when into these changes. It just became... it just became... it just seemed... There's so little responsible human agency in that.

Much of Canby's article is about the difficulty of checking the accuracy of quotes a writer puts together using tapes and notes from interviews. But Toobin's piece relies on a Supreme Court transcript. It was perfectly easy to check, and the motivation to check was extremely high since the transcript was on line for everyone to see, including a lot of lawyers and law professors (like me) who stand ready to jump on mistakes and distortions in spinning a case that is pending before a court that might be influenced by these writings.

The sloppiness here was adonalding appalling.

25 comments:

betamax3000 said...

"Bright Lights, Big City is an American novel by Jay McInerney, published by Vintage Books on August 12, 1984... ...The story's narrator is a writer who works as a fact checker for a high-brow magazine—likely based on Harpers or The New Yorker, where McInerney himself once worked as a fact checker—for which he had once hoped to write. By night, he is a cocaine-using party-goer seeking to lose himself in the hedonism of the 1980s yuppie party scene..."


Fact Checking in the Eighties

rhhardin said...

Some mention of Thurber's globally fact-ignoring essay on the workings of the New Yorker, beginning with its offices in the Hotel New Yorker, is appropriate.

I don't know which of the many Thurber essay books it's in. It's a whole bookshelf full, bad for recalling.

The Years with Ross was good on its own, for New Yorker fans. I don't believe it's in there though.

Bob Boyd said...

Awesome!
And the new photo goes with it. You appear none too pleased, like maybe you are looking at Toobin and his editor.

Have you read Tom Wolfe's 'The New Yorker Affair'? Its in a collection of his works called 'Hooking Up'. Pretty funny.

Tank said...

Tell the truth. Did you:

1. Grow your hair long for Meade (that's my guess - he loves long hair)?

2. Post an old picture?

3. Post that picture to make ST crazy?

4. .......?

Roger Sweeny said...

Maybe all the "justs" are deliberate, to emphasize how little thought went into the change. "But Brutus said he was ambitious, and Brutus is an honorable man."

Rusty said...

I like the new picture, Althouse.




(Hobbs. You lucky bastard.)

PB Reader said...

They have lost the sense of shame and embarrassment for having such low professional standards. They issue corrections, not apologies.

betamax3000 said...

Crazy Street Corner Guy Off His Meds Says"

You all walk around like you know what you're talking about, talking into your phones, I HATE your phones and your Internets, evil, they connect you straight to the Devil and you choose to listen, you are weak and you choose your evil Life. I can smell your foul lies on you, you write them down like that makes them True but you have fleas in your head, fleas, and your shoes are ugly, you wear ugly shoes.

Ann Althouse said...

"And the new photo goes with it. You appear none too pleased, like maybe you are looking at Toobin and his editor."

It's an old picture, the first photograph of myself that ever appeared on the blog.

I ran across it yesterday as I was searching through pages and pages of old photos looking for the right Flickr code to replace the old mac.com code on very old posts. (Apple obliterated all the old code from my mac.com pages, leaving me with many old posts that no longer displayed pictures.)

Zeb Quinn said...

Can't help but think that the economics of dead tree journalism in the digital age is really what changed everything, more than anything else.

Ann Althouse said...

I can't grow my hair that fast!

chickenlittle said...

With all due respect Althouse, your concern for The New Yorker is all well and good, but you aren't going to change their course.

You and others keep sending them money, signaling them that they are on the right course. Yell “Get an editor!” all you want – they’re just not listening. The proper response – and the old fashioned one – is to affect their bottom line, however marginally.

Bob Boyd said...

"I can't grow my hair that fast!"

I was wondering about that, but women have amazing capabilities it is better not to understand.

Jay Vogt said...

It's hard to know what to make of middle to high brow general interest magazines these days. They were (and could still be) perfect for passing time on airplanes. The New Yorker was (and though diminished still is) the best of them.

I used to board with at least two of them (NYer, the Atlantic, Harpers or maybe Esquire or VF) for any given flight. You could pretty much count on some very interesting writers (McPhee, Trillin, Langewiesche, Owen ) writing about about not necessarily interesting subjects (geology, obscure food, airplanes, computer design) in a way that really got you interested. Hell, even Joan Ococella got me to read about modern dance.

Now the the Atlantic is obsessed with mothering in LA. Harpers is a generalized mess, Esquire is a quasi-lad's book, and VF is on a ceaseless bizarre quest to exhume the fabulousness of JFK and Elizabeth Taylor).

The NewYorker is still the best if the lot, and by more than a little. Yet, the lazy drift into cultural/political snark is everywhere. Odd, because that's the natural home field advantage of social media where nothing is required to play. The resources of a good publishing house (money, staff, time, reputation and access) are mandatory for a good medium form piece of non-fiction.

As frustrating as it is to be a reader of this stuff it must be unbearable to be a quality writer and watch your professional environment disintegrate.

jacksonjay said...

If the prompt is about The New Yorker, I think it is the Age of Obama editing and journalism. You know, careless, hit or miss, helter skelter, "What difference at this point...", journalism.

"Pass it to know what's in it..."
"What difference at this point ..."
"Blame it on YouTube..."
"If you like your doctor ..."
"Don't cross the red line ..."
"Phony scandals, not a smidgen..."
"Turns out no such thing as shovel-ready..."
"KochBros control the old sands..."
"Me and Francis talked about greedy capitalists..."

It just doesn't matter what we say, we will spin it later.

I have no opinion about hair.

Jay Vogt said...

It's hard to know what to make of middle to high brow general interest magazines these days. They were (and could still be) perfect for passing time on airplanes. The New Yorker was (and though diminished still is) the best of them.

I used to board with at least two of them (NYer, the Atlantic, Harpers or maybe Esquire or VF) for any given flight. You could pretty much count on some very interesting writers (McPhee, Trillin, Langewiesche, Owen ) writing about about not necessarily interesting subjects (geology, obscure food, airplanes, computer design) in a way that really got you interested. Hell, even Joan Ococella got me to read about modern dance.

Now the the Atlantic is obsessed with mothering in LA. Harpers is a generalized mess, Esquire is a quasi-lad's book, and VF is on a ceaseless bizarre quest to exhume the fabulousness of JFK and Elizabeth Taylor).

The NewYorker is still the best if the lot, and by more than a little. Yet, the lazy drift into cultural/political snark is everywhere. Odd, because that's the natural home field advantage of social media where nothing is required to play. The resources of a good publishing house (money, staff, time, reputation and access) are mandatory for a good medium form piece of non-fiction.

As frustrating as it is to be a reader of this stuff it must be unbearable to be a quality writer and watch your professional environment disintegrate.

cubanbob said...

In the Internet age immediacy for a print magazine is a fools errand. Toobin's piece is a perfect example. Better for The New Yorker to get back to its old days of fact checking and producing articles that are well reaserched instead of producing advocacy pieces. Were they to do so I would subscribe again.

Eric said...

Facts are words we use to win the argument.

EDH said...

So... did some editor tell Toobin he had to dash off a piece about the Hobby Lobby oral argument? Did he glance at a few things and decide his angle would be War-on-Women stuff about 3 female Justices standing up for birth control versus those religionists and corporations-are-people wingers? That might explain missing that the case is about a federal statute, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and not a constitutional right to "religious expression."

You can see how the New Yorker's slip-shod editorial approach successfully permeates the debate last night on Bill Maher's show, however, where Maher perpetuated the narrative with his "Real Time" panel of morons.

Even though lone Republican Rick Lazio did say that RFRA, signed by Bill Clinton, was at the heart of the case, Lazio was too reliably stupid to rebut why Scalia was right in both the Smith and Hobby Lobby cases.

chrisnavin.com said...

While I may not agree with many editorial decisions at the New Yorker, nor the politics gripping the magazine, nor the other forces at work in NYC and more broadly, I think a lot of this can be explained by Jay Vogt's comment above.

I wouldn't mind seeing the New Yorker do well: Long-form journalism with sometimes great cover art, literary-fiction, cartoons, poetry, essays on culture etc. There's some really good and professional writing over there.

It managed to become a kind of institution.

Douglas said...

Prof. Althouse,

You wrote, "Do they just trust Toobin because he's a law professor?" My question is whether Toobin is in fact a law professor. I always thought of him as a former lawyer; legally trained, but no longer practicing law or teaching law. But maybe I'm wrong - if so, where does he teach?

Smilin' Jack said...

Oh, New Yorker! How far you have fallen! Your correction of a supposed "editing error" itself contains an egregious error.

Well, duh. But the truly egregious error has nothing to do with this Verrilli bozo.

"Due to an editing error, some words were omitted from one of Paul Verrilli’s quotes."

When even the New Yorker accepts the adjectival "Due to" rather than the correctly adverbial "Owing to," you know that Western Civ has entered the final loops of its death spiral.

Jeff with one 'f' said...

Harold Ross is spinning in his grave. (But then he's probably been doing so at least since Tina Brown took over).

Unknown said...

Smilin' Jack -- yeh, THAT! The phrase modifies the verb -- it tells why the "omitted" happened. Adverb needed. Credit is due, Mr. Jack.

Nichevo said...

Does this error, which you spotted and Althouse did not, make you more or less fuckable, I wonder? The only thing less attractive to those types than being inferior to them is being superior to them.

Although I do not want to fuck Althouse, I will freely confess that you have me on toast; I, too, failed to note this error. If you are correct.

I would need the rule explained in greater details, with examples, to truly understand. In any instance where I recall a like sentence, including on television broadcasts of the 70s and 80s, I always remember to have seen "due" and not "owing". This is a fascinating lacuna and I thank you for the education.