Part 1—Don’t answer too fast: Is the New York Times’ David Carr really this clueless?
Careful! Don’t answer too fast!
Is David Carr really this clueless? We found ourselves asking this question as we read Carr’s new column this morning.
Carr’s weekly column, “The Media Equation,” deals, or pretends to deal, with various media issues. This morning’s column is the New York Times’ version of press criticism.
Question: Is today’s column a serious effort? Or is David Carr just an industry shill, a critic straight outta Potemkin?
Carr’s column deals with a groaning error in the press coverage of the Trayvon Martin killing—one of about a thousand such “errors” the mainstream “press corps” has made. In fairness to Carr, this particular error occurred on the Today show, a major platform for NBC News—and it was a doozy.
In fairness to Carr, he explains the error quite well. On the Today show, George Zimmerman’s original call to the Sanford police was edited in a grossly misleading way. This is Carr’s account of the error he worries about today—an error he says was “misleading, incendiary, dead-bang wrong:”
CARR (4/23/12): After broadcasting an audio clip on the “Today” show about George Zimmerman last month that hit the trifecta of being misleading, incendiary and dead-bang wrong, NBC News management took serious action: it fired the producer in charge and issued a statement apologizing for making it appear as if Mr. Zimmerman had made overtly racist statements.Without any question, that was a horrible bit of “editing.” The edited version of the phone call made it sound like Zimmerman featured Martin’s race in his call to the Sanford police. It made it sound like race was the very first thing on his mind.
Here is how NBC edited the clip of Mr. Zimmerman, who is now charged with second-degree murder in the Trayvon Martin case:
“This guy looks like he’s up to no good. ... he looks black.”
Here is what Mr. Zimmerman actually said:
“This guy looks like he’s up to no good. Or he’s on drugs or something. It’s raining and he’s just walking around, looking about.” The dispatcher then asks, “O.K., and this guy—is he white, black or Hispanic?” Mr. Zimmerman pauses and replies, “He looks black.”
The clip was first broadcast on March 22, but no one noticed until it was rebroadcast on March 27. Later, when word of the misleading edit got out, everyone from Sean Hannity to Jon Stewart reacted with disbelief, with good reason.
Needless to say, this bungled edit perfectly fit one novelized version of this event, which ended in Martin’s death.
In typical New York Times fashion, Carr overstates the nature of this editing bungle. Can we talk? Even after NBC fashioned its horrible edit, George Zimmerman wasn’t shown making “overtly racist statements.”
On its face, that claim is just silly. But if you work for the New York Times, you’re expected to shriek in such ways. That said, this truly was a horrible editing bungle. As Carr notes, many observers reacted to this error—and they did so “with good reason.”
(Did these people react “with disbelief” to this latest error by NBC News? If so, they’re just as clueless as Carr seems to be, if we assume he worked in good faith assembling this morning’s column.)
Carr is covering some very old ground in recounting this editing error. As he says, many folk screeched about this edit during the last week in March.
Why does Carr revisit this ground? He has a lofty new question to ask: Why didn’t NBC News issue a formal correction right there on the Today show?
This is a rather narrow concern. In fact, NBC News took many actions in response to this ludicrous error. As Carr notes in his opening paragraph, “it fired the producer in charge and issued a statement apologizing for” this groaning error.
NBC’s statement of regret was widely reported. But NBC failed to take one additional step; it didn’t make a formal correction on the Today show itself. Carr is very disturbed by this failure. It forms the basis for the concern—or for the fake concern—around which he builds today’s column.
Should the Today show have aired a correction? Probably yes, though for various reasons, we don’t think it matters all that much. But Carr is very concerned about this failure, or at least he pretends to be.
In this passage, he voices his vast concern. For the first time, he makes us wonder if he can be this clueless:
CARR: What is it with television news and corrections? When the rest of the journalism world gets something wrong, they generally correct themselves. But network news acts as if an on-air admission of error might cause a meteor to land on the noggin of one of its precious talking heads. NBC used all of the powers at its disposal to amend the mistake, except the high-visibility airtime where the bad clip ran in the first place.Are you kidding? “When the rest of the journalism world gets something wrong, they generally correct themselves?” On which planet has Carr been stationed over the past thirty years?
That highlighted statement is baldly absurd—a piece of obvious nonsense delivered to New York Times readers. But then, the analysts came right out of their chairs when Carr typed one additional groaner. We’ll ask you to focus on one key word as we extend his analysis from what we have posted above:
CARR: The clip was first broadcast on March 22, but no one noticed until it was rebroadcast on March 27. Later, when word of the misleading edit got out, everyone from Sean Hannity to Jon Stewart reacted with disbelief, with good reason.The analysts came out of their chairs when they read that key word: “aggressive.”
Some went on to draw a line from NBC to MSNBC and its aggressive coverage of the incident and then on to the Rev. Al Sharpton, who has tried—awkwardly and unsuccessfully—to tread the line between talk show host and advocate.
People I talked to in and around NBC say it was idiocy, not ideology, that led to the edit, and that seems like a reasonable explanation, so I’m not buying that part about it being one more example of the liberal plot to subvert America.
But even absent motive, it was a remarkable lapse in editorial process that inflamed a highly emotional issue, and it created suspicion that journalists and media outlets were picking sides. Erik Wemple of The Washington Post called the incident “high editorial malpractice” because it took the tape of the 911 call—the only hard and fast piece of evidence in an otherwise murky case—and mangled it beyond recognition.
Incredible, isn’t it? Confronted with MSNBC’s astonishing conduct of the past month, all Carr can do is tell his readers that the network has been “aggressive!” As he does, he stages a familiar type of show trial:
Carr pretends to be very upset by one of the thousand-and-one instances in which NBC News and its cable affiliate have “mangled” the facts of this case “beyond recognition.” He voices concerned about that one instance—and he deep-sixes the rest!
As we’ll help you see all week, this is a very familiar type of “press criticism.” In this type of Potemkin criticism, the guild pretends to challenge its own, even as it directs your attention away from the full extent of the guild’s misconduct. In today’s iteration, Carr pretends that the guild usually does step forward to correct its own mistakes—and he keeps Times readers from understanding what the guild has done in this case.
Can David Carr possibly be this clueless? People! Don’t answer too fast!
Tomorrow: Will there be blood?