"Nobody should self-publish," says Philip Corbett, the standards editor of The New York Times. "Everything should go through an editor. Ideally, it should go through two editors."
Corbett was speaking in January 2011, after the Times mistakenly reported that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords had been killed by a gunman in her Arizona district. We thought of Corbett's admonition after widely respected media critic Howard Kurtz made, in his own words, a "big mistake" in covering the story of Jason Collins, the pro basketball player who wrote an article in Sports Illustrated coming out as gay.
In his commentary on the Daily Beast website, Kurtz accused Collins of covering up the fact that he had once been engaged to a woman. But Collins had made that very point in his article. "I read it too fast and carelessly missed" Collins' admission, Kurtz said on his CNN show "Reliable Sources" (where Steve is an occasional guest).
Give Kurtz credit for confessing his sin on national TV. But the incident exposes serious flaws -- and some significant advantages -- in a digital universe where writers "self-publish" all the time and lack the safeguards built into old-line media outlets like The Washington Post, where Kurtz worked for years.
The first lesson is the obvious one: Speed can be the enemy of accuracy. Kurtz read the Collins piece "too fast" because he wanted to be first, to be out there, to make a splash. As traditional sources of revenue dry up, every media platform is under enormous pressure these days to break news, attract attention and generate the click-throughs that appeal to advertisers.
The pressures are even greater for online upstarts like the Daily Beast that are still struggling to establish a brand identity. And when consumers increasingly get their news through mobile devices that seem permanently attached to their palms, speed has a real virtue. It also leads to the carelessness Kurtz describes, but that wasn't his only error.
He totally ignored Corbett's adage. No one saw his column before it was posted. As Kurtz said on CNN: "Sometimes there is a tendency, when you do something quick, when you just hit the button, you don't check as carefully."
Kurtz then taped a video segment for the Daily Download, a website where he is a frequent contributor, during which he made an offensive comment about Collins playing "both sides of the court." Lauren Ashburn, who runs the site, said later, "I knew Kurtz was going to make this point about Collins before we taped, and I didn't double-check to make sure it was accurate."
By this time, speed was no excuse for sloppiness. Again, Kurtz wanted to get noticed, and again, he failed to consult an editor -- or at least one who thought double-checking was part of her job.
Every journalist in the world has made mistakes, including us. Many of them. It goes with the territory. But we still have an obligation to minimize those mistakes, to aim toward accuracy, to follow strict standards of professionalism.
As a married couple we have an advantage, since we each have an in-house editor. But we never "hit the button" on this column until both of us have read it very carefully. We're petrified of self-publishing because we know how easy it is to miss a point or mangle a meaning. And when we do omit something, the editors at Universal Uclick provide another line of defense.
In the online world, many writers are like Kurtz. There's no filter, no checkpoint between them and the public. But this new universe does have one huge advantage: interactivity. Thousands of editors are out there in cyberspace, primed to correct and criticize the slightest misstep.
This month marks the 10th anniversary of the scandal spawned by Jayson Blair, the young New York Times reporter who "lied and faked and cheated his way through story after story -- scores of them, for years," in the words of Times ombudsman Margaret Sullivan.
The Blair affair is a reminder that even the most diligent news outlet can be victimized by a determined fraud. It also suggests how much the world has changed in 10 years. Sullivan says that Blair's sins "would come to the surface much more quickly in the age of blogging and Twitter," and she's right. As Times managing editor Dean Baquet puts it, "The world is better at checking us and challenging us."
True enough. But that's no substitute for checking and challenging ourselves. We still should do that before hitting the button.
© 2013, United Features Syndicate