Errors and Omissions:
The Decline And Fall Of the United States
The ongoing deprecation of The New York Times, America’s Newspaper Of Record.
- The arts represent civilization.
- The arts’ decline is representative of civilization’s decline.
- In this case, it is the art of writing.
- But not just any writing—the writing of journalism, which tradiaionally creates the record of our national history.
- I do this not as a critic of The Times as a so-called “liberal” paper, but as a concerned liberal exposing current fault lines in the paper in the hopes that the owners and eidtors will wake up and stanch the bleeding. For God’s sake, if you can’t even proofread properly, how can you copy-edit? If you can’t copy-edit, how can you present good articles??
- Priorities—the paper’s values seem intact for the most part, but I see creeping tabloidism, and flashy, pop culture elements sneaking in. My point being the NYT will survive by being the bulwark against the rising tide of “Idiocracy”—a term borrowed from the title of Mike Judge’s amazing, nationally suppressed movie which depicts a not-too-distant future.
- Rather than adapting, NYT must do what it does best—present good articles. So as all other media deteriorates around us, this standard-bearer remains the final shred of intelligence, fact, and impartial reporting. It’s tradition is to maintain an objective, albeit ironic, approach to the news, frequently characterized by an aloof, if not wry. As your mother taught you, there’s nothing wrong with irony.
- This is our blog’s mission—to keep the paper alive even though it now seems no longer possible.
What is a “Paper of Record?”
I think Wikipedia, rapidly becoming a more reliable source than the NYT, is right by defining a Paper of Record as a publication meeting “high standards of journalism, the articles of which establish a definitive record of current events.” Also, it is “any public newspaper whose editorial and news-gathering functions are considered professional and typically unbiased.”
What’s incredible is The Times theory of decline has already been codified… by themselves!
“Daniel Okrent, at the time the public editor of The New York Times, wrote on April 25, 2004 that his paper is no longer a newspaper of record, and that this change is to be welcomed. In his view, the journalism of a “newspaper of record” is “as much stenography as reporting, as much virtual reprinting of handouts (in the form of verbatim transcripts of unexceptional speeches) as provocative journalism.” John Geddes, the managing editor of The New York Times, expressed this even more strongly: “I don’t think there can be a ‘paper of record’. The term implies an omniscient chronicler of events, an arbiter that perfectly captures the significance and import of a day in our lives. I don’t work at that place.” (your definition is idiotic, Mr. Geddes, you are a true idiot)
Here is the actual article:
(see My Saved Pages for several interesting responses to this article)
THE PUBLIC EDITOR; Paper of Record? No Way, No Reason, No Thanks
By DANIEL OKRENT
Published: April 25, 2004
My cellmate Arthur Bovino, who has at his fingertips data that could make a statistician weep, calculates that in the five months since the office of the public editor opened for business, we’ve received 589 messages that contain the phrase ”paper of record.”
Many readers summon up ”All the News That’s Fit to Print” (196 invocations to date) and ”Gray Lady of 43rd Street” (80). But I’ve never been able to figure out whether ”All the News ” is a comment on the news itself or on the paper that contains it, and ”Gray Lady,” while geographically accurate, is both inapt and a cliché. ”Paper of record” is easier to grasp: a compliment used as a cudgel. ”If this is what passes as reporting in our national paper of record,” wrote Jeff Kreines of Coosada, Ala., ”no wonder this country is in the mess it’s in.” John E. O’Beirne of Yorktown Heights, N.Y., wrote to express his preference for one of The Times’s competitors, which gets ”much closer to the truth than the self-proclaimed ‘paper of record.”’
Judging by both the progress of modern journalism (yes, there’s been some, at least in the realm of self-knowledge) and an unscientific survey I recently conducted, I don’t think too many people would want to work for a paper of record, which The Times once sort of was. Even fewer, I believe, would want to read it, as a few idle hours last week trying to keep awake over a Saturday Times of 40 years ago showed me.
For a dime, here’s what a reader could have learned from The Times of April 25, 1964: The assistant commissioner of the Reclamation Bureau resigned to join the staff of Senator Carl Hayden. At the United Nations, the Special Committee on Colonialism heard a statement from ”a Malta petitioner.” The president of Algeria flew to Moscow, around the same time that the president of West Germany began a good-will tour of South America when ”his Lufthansa jet airliner touched down at Lima’s new international airport after a nonstop flight from Miami, where he spent the night.” (A separate item attributed to United Press International read — in its entirety — ”President Johnson’s plane landed at Washington National Airport at 10:30 tonight.”)
Congress watchers were provided a daily schedule of House and Senate hearings. A top-of-the-page headline revealed that five houses in Center Island and Mill Neck would be included in a tour sponsored by the Smith College Club of Long Island. The Women’s Press Club was scheduled to meet that afternoon at the Statler Hilton. My personal favorite: Houston baseball officials gave pitcher Ken Johnson a $1,000 raise.
And that’s just scratching a surface that stretched across a numbing collection of announcements, schedules, directories and transcripts: the appointment of two vice presidents at an auto parts company; the daily docket of bankruptcy proceedings in local courts; a listing (title, author, publisher, price) of every book published that day; obituaries of 24 luminaries of very faint wattage; a roster of the 35 ships that had sailed from the Port of New York since Thursday night, another of the 35 that had arrived.
Sure, there was a lot of wonderful work in The Times back then — on that same April 25, stories on more stimulating subjects bore the bylines of three young reporters named David Halberstam, J. Anthony Lukas and Gay Talese. But in many respects the paper-of-record Times had as much stenography as reporting, as much virtual reprinting of handouts (in the form of verbatim transcripts of unexceptional speeches) as provocative journalism. The leftist British journalist Robert Fisk said last fall that The Times should rename itself ”American Officials Say.” Forty years ago, that wouldn’t have been so tendentious.
”Newspaper of record” did not originate with the editors. According to Times archivist Lora Korbut, the phrase first appeared in 1927, when the paper sponsored an essay contest to promote its annual index. Entrants were asked to elaborate on the contest’s title, ”The Value of The New York Times Index and Files as a Newspaper of Record.” (This probably did not attract as many contestants as ”The Apprentice.”) Somehow what began as a promotion for an index service soon adhered to the skin of the paper itself, perhaps because the meticulous presentation of the acts of officialdom was long one of the ways The Times distinguished itself in an eight-newspaper town.
”Long ago,” according to Bill Borders, a senior editor who’s been with the paper for 43 years, ”The Times used to feel an obligation to print lots of things that we knew no one much would read — the new members of the Peruvian cabinet, for example — just to get them on the record. Fortunately those days are over.”
Judging by the responses I got from the 50 Times newsroom staff members to whom I put the question ”Do you think The Times is the newspaper of record?” Borders is not alone in his gratitude. Several acknowledged the inspiration suggested by the loftiness of the phrase, but only a couple endorsed its literal meaning. With very few exceptions, the longer you’ve been here, or the higher you’ve risen in the organization, the less likely you are to believe The Times is, or should be, the paper of record. Metro columnist Clyde Haberman told me that in his 27 years at The Times, ”I have never heard anyone inside the paper refer to it that way”; reporter Richard Pérez-Peña, an 11-year veteran, said, ”I don’t think I’ve ever heard my colleagues here use the phrase except rarely, in an ironic, almost self-mocking tone.”
I think that’s because they recognize both the impossibility of fulfilling the role and the deadening effect it could have on the paper. Katherine Bouton, deputy editor of the paper’s Sunday magazine, said: ”We understand now that all reporting is selective. With the exception of raw original source material, there really isn’t anything ‘of record,’ is there?” Reporter Stephanie Strom noted that ”we certainly aren’t the paper of record for leaders of the African-American and Hispanic communities.” Or, one could add, the Orthodox Jewish community or the Staten Island community or the lacrosse community or fill in the blank.
Here’s another way of stating it: In a heterogeneous world, whose record is one newspaper even in the position to preserve? And what group of individuals, no matter how talented or dedicated, would dare arrogate to itself so godlike a role? If you rely on The Times as your only source of news, you are buying into the conceptions, attitudes and interests of the people who put it out every day. It cannot be definitive, and asking it to be is a disservice to both the staff and the readers. I mean no disrespect to The Times, but what discriminating citizen can really afford to rely on only one source of news? And can’t all discriminating readers contextualize what their newspapers (or television stations or radio hosts or Web logs) tell them?
Another phrase often used to imbue daily journalism with a holy glow when in fact it’s something of a put-down — ”the first draft of history” — is far more appropriate. A first draft is definitionally imperfect, sometimes embarrassing and almost always needful of improvement. The crucial second draft consists of a paper’s correction of errors, acknowledgment of omissions and, when the stakes are high enough, explanation of missteps. Even so, future generations will be unfortunate if their historians think there’s only one source to turn to when trying to understand the past.
No one I queried nailed a plausible ambition for The Times more accurately than managing editor John Geddes: ”I don’t think there can be a ‘paper of record.’ The term implies an omniscient chronicler of events, an arbiter that perfectly captures the significance and import of a day in our lives. I don’t work at that place. I work at a newspaper that exists in a world where there are constraints of time, resources and knowledge. The wonder of the paper is that knowing the everyday limits to our ambitions doesn’t prevent us from trying to exceed them.”
It’s the shape of the aspiration and the extent that it’s achieved for which The Times should be held responsible. Readers who expect more will deserve what they get. Ask for the paper of record, and you will end up holding a catalog, a soporific or an apologist. Probably all three, in fact.