The Times at Twilight

Some years ago, I gave my secretary a letter to type that included a series of mathematical calculations. A little later she came into my office and told me she thought I had made an error; I checked and, sure enough, she was right. I thanked her for catching the mistake, and asked how she had come to check that particular calculation. She said that for the five years or so that she had worked for me, she had checked every calculation I had ever put in correspondence or briefs; but this was the first time she had found an error.
I was deeply impressed by my secretary’s loyalty. It would have been easy for her to abandon this elementary fact-checking, which I never knew she was doing in the first place, when years went by without finding an error. But she didn’t; and when I made a mistake, she was there to make sure it didn’t go out to our client.
Which brings me to the New York Times. I always thought that newspapers have editors who read the copy prepared by reporters to make sure that it makes sense, is grammatical, and does not contain obvious errors. This may be true at some newspapers, but apparently not at the Times. Today’s Corrections section includes this item: “The Age of Dissonance column last Sunday, about precocious young adults, misstated the age of Brett Easton Ellis in 1985, when he published his first novel, ‘Less Than Zero,’ and his age today. He was 21 then, not 23; now he is 39, not 38.”
This is, of course, a minor error (although Ellis’s age was the whole point of the column’s reference to him). But it is one that no competent secretary–or editor–would allow to occur. A man who was 23 in 1985 cannot be 38 in 2003. The numbers don’t add up. This would have been obvious to anyone who cared enough to read the Times story with any attention. But it is apparent to regular readers of the Times that neither its reporters nor its editors–I take it on faith that the Times must have editors–care enough about the stuff they print to read it carefully. This is what happens to organizations in decline. Employees begin to realize that the people around them are doing a poor job, and don’t much care. They start doing a poor job, and not caring, too. The Times is in a downward spiral that is unlikely to be arrested.

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