January 18, 2013
Manti Te'o
Manti Te’o (Winslow Townson / The Associated Press)

New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan was in a no-nonsense mood in the aftermath of media shortcomings on the Dec. 14 Newtown massacre. News outlets, including the New York Times, had botched early coverage of the tragedy, including the identity of the shooter and other, less consequential details. When Reuters columnist Jack Shafer warned folks not to expect too much from the media in breaking-news situations, Sullivan soapboxed it:

To this, I offer a radical response: That’s not good enough. Or maybe it’s good enough for some news organizations and some news consumers. But it’s not good enough for The New York Times and its readers.

The Manti Te’o affair marks another mass failure by the media, and one in which the New York Times has some role. In a blog post yesterday on the matter, Sullivan quotes extensively from sports editor Joe Sexton, who acknowledges that the New York Times had printed the girlfriend thing in its pages, but not in any prominent manner. Sexton told Sullivan:

The death of his grandmother and ostensible girlfriend were never the focus of any article we did. They were mentioned, glancingly, as part of the accepted, to date unchallenged public narrative of a prominent athlete. I could never imagine in editing such a story, with the references existing as they did, asking the reporters: Do you know for a fact his grandmother is dead? Do you know for a fact his girlfriend is dead? Do you know for a fact his grandmother existed? Do you know for a fact his girlfriend ever existed? And any editor who tells you they would have or should have asked those questions is kidding you.

Sullivan ends the post with a call for a “refresher course” in fact-checking. Well, what happened to the public editor’s “radicalism” on facts and the New York Times? Where’s the unforgiving New York Times public editor? She declined to comment, saying that her blog posts are self-speaking.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.