Thursday, November 01, 2007

Failing upward

Editor Melanie Sill is leaving the Raleigh News and Observer

Melanie Sill is named The Bee's new top editor

Of course, the PR flacks and internal spin-meisters want to put the best face on it:

Sill was in the thick of one of the most explosive stories to hit North Carolina in recent years, the accusations of rape against a group of Duke University lacrosse players.

After the players were eventually exonerated, the national media were roundly criticized for taking the rape allegations at face value
.That may be how it looks inside the media bubble. For those of us who followed the case, The N&O’s performance was abysmal on many, many levels. In fact, I’d argue that the paper’s performance won it the coveted title of “most embarrassing screw up in the annals of daily journalism.”

Previous high-profile scandals (Janet Cooke, Jayson Blair) involved individual malfeasance and slipshod editorial oversight. The Washington Post and New York Times also deserve credit for how they handled their screw-ups. When questions arose about their stories, the bosses investigated, took action, and told the public what went wrong.

Contrast that with how the N&O handled the lacrosse case. Their attacks on the players was not the work of a single rogue reporters. The editors pushed the story hard and flooded the zone to trash the team. In short, the paper failed to get the story right when they were trying very hard to get the story.

What really hurts the N&O is not that they made mistakes. Rather, it is their obstinate refusal to acknowledge those mistakes. Unlike the Times and the Post, they have refused to give a full explanation of what went wrong and how they intend to prevent future errors.

It is understandable that a young reporter got conned by a sob story. It is embarrassing that her editors bought the same story that ignited the firestorm. It is ludicrous that the paper still defends their early reporting and tries to shift the blame to “national media.”

OTOH, it paid off for Sill who gets a nice promotion and a ticket out of Raleigh.

Two other points:

We see again how “public editors” work mainly as PR flacks for their paper:

The News & Observer's public editor said the paper did a far better job than most of digging beneath the surface but committed some "serious missteps" in the first few weeks, including making references to the accuser as "a victim."
Once again, they praise themselves with faint damns.

Also, this is worth a laugh to those who followed Sill’s blog and her testy relationship with internet readers:

Hailed as a risk taker who will push the newspaper further into the Internet age

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