On April 20, New York Daily News photographer Todd Maisel was in Cartagena, Colombia, working on the story of the Secret Service scandal. Amid his wanderings, he banged out a provocative tweet:
NY Times still has key players locked up. Money talks....
Quite an allegation. The New York Times doesn’t pay people for interviews. But could Maisel have been on the money?
A news organization looking at that tweet has a few options. One would be to ignore it. Implying that the New York Times is paying off people in Colombia to nail scoops on the Secret Service story, after all, is just one way to express jealousy for the newsbreaking work that the paper had done. That Times oeuvre includes the famous quote from an escort regarding her spat with a Secret Service agent: “I tell him, ‘Baby, my cash money.’ ”
Taking it seriously is another way to go: Press Maisel for documentation of his claim; bug the New York Times about it; investigate!
Politico selected Door No. 3, building an article around Maisel’s charge. The item, under the byline of Patrick Gavin, started with this language:
In a tweet this morning, New York Daily News photographer Todd Maisel suggested that the New York Times was paying sources on the ground in Cartagena for their silence.
“NY Times still has key players locked up. Money talks.”
In the last line of the post, Politico made clear that it was publishing now, confirming later:
We’ve reached out to the Times reporters on the story in addition to a New York Times representative. We’ve reached out to Maisel, too, for further details.
When reached by phone, New York Times spokeswoman Eileen Murphy told the Erik Wemple Blog that it took her but 20 minutes to respond to Politico on this item. It will surprise no one that the Secret Service prostitution scandal prompted no change in New York Times newsgathering guidelines: “The accusation made by this Daily News photographer is offensive and utterly false. The New York Times paid nothing for interviews on this story.”
The effect of Politico’s treatment was to accord two disparate parties equal standing: Some photographer from a competing paper with no evidence for his claim says something; the New York Times denies it. You be the judge of who’s telling the truth!
That “story” was good enough to trigger a link from DrudgeReport.com. The conservative aggregator’s appetite for shaky reporting by Politico bears some resemblance to this week’s events. Huffington Post also glommed on to the thing.
From that point onward, Politico treated this bit of Twitter spittle like an actual developing-news story. It kept pumping updates into the file — a subsequent tweet from Maisel, for example, along with notes about how Politico was working its sources. Of course, following this “story” meant watching Maisel’s allegation come undone. At one point, he tweeted that “my opinions are my opinions alone and not that of the Daily News.” Later he noted that he was “wrong” and “sorry.” (The handle that Maisel used for the tweet doesn’t appear to be active anymore.)
After Politico published Maisel’s allegation, New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson received a voicemail from New York Daily News Editor-in-Chief Colin Myler, saying that the tweet was “Maisel’s own and did not reflect the opinion of the Daily News,” according to a spokesperson for the Daily News. In response, the New York Times thanked Myler for his “swift and professional response.”
The Politico post doesn’t include any acknowledgment that perhaps it should have flipped the sequence of its reporting on the tweet. And there’s a reason for this lack of introspection, as the Times’ Murphy discovered.
Irked that Politico would pluck a random tweet and place its brand name behind it, Murphy pushed the news site for an explanation of what had gone down. “I complained,” she says. “We objected strenuously to the fact that they reported . . . that tweet in the absence of any evidence that the person who tweeted had any knowledge of what he was tweeting about.”
A discussion with a Politico editor, recalls Murphy, yielded an unsatisfactory explanation for why the post had been published. So the spokewoman escalated the issue, corresponding with a Politico higher-up whom she declines to identify. (My requests for comment from Politico have fetched nothing.)
In an e-mail exchange with that higher-up, Murphy wrote something to this effect: “Making such an explosive charge before we [New York Times] had a chance to comment was irresponsible. I’m surprised it meets with Politico’s standards. It surely would not meet with ours.”
The response from Politico, Murphy says, was this: The post was “consistent with our policy, which is for blogs to recognize material that is already in the public domain — as this was, as it had been tweeted — and to seek comment, which Patrick did. Blogs work in real time.”
Technically unimpeachable: Maisel’s tweet was indeed in the public domain. That same public domain fills up with around 350 million tweets per day.
At the time that Politico elevated Maisel’s grumble to its nationally known platform, there was no imperative to fact-check it. The Times hadn’t even heard about the allegation before Politico brought to to their attention.
Everyone — politicians, competing reporters, citizens — knows that Politico’s imperative is speed. The Cartagena checkbook-journalism episode illustrates just how much the site may be willing to sacrifice in its pursuit.