February 3, 2014

MSNBC host Joe Scarborough delivered a dim assessment of the Friday afternoon New York Times story that created a fresh set of political problems for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie: “It wasn’t news,” said Scarborough.

Wendell Jamieson, the metro editor of the New York Times, isn’t buying that. “Someone was saying on the shows on Sunday that this doesn’t move the ball down the field,” Jamieson told the Erik Wemple Blog this afternoon. “I’m saying it moves it a few yards.”

The story in question hit the Internet on Friday afternoon under the byline of New York Times reporter Kate Zernike, who had scored a letter from the lawyer of David Wildstein, the Port Authority executive who presided over the controversial Fort Lee, N.J., lane closings to the George Washington Bridge in September. The letter, from attorney Alan L. Zegas, challenged the governor’s public statements about the episode, which is threatening his political future.

In a two-hour news conference on Jan. 9, Christie said, among many other things, that he’d been in the dark about the closures: “I had no knowledge of this — of the planning, the execution or anything about it — and that I first found out about it after it was over.” The very first iteration of the New York Times story reported that Wildstein claimed something far different: Namely, that he “had” evidence that the governor knew of the lane closures when they were happening.

Twitter, Facebook, news sites, political hacks all exploded over the revelation.

Then everyone realized that the case wasn’t quite as strong as the New York Times’s lede had suggested. The text of the letter from Wildstein’s lawyer, in fact, signaled merely that “evidence exists” that the governor had contemporaneous knowledge of the matter. The story changed to clarify the point. The lede now reads like this:

The former Port Authority official who personally oversaw the lane closings at the George Washington Bridge, central to the scandal now swirling around Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, said on Friday that “evidence exists” that the governor knew about the closings when they were happening.

The New York Times secured the letter mid-afternoon on Friday, says Jamieson, and worked up a preliminary post of around five paragraphs. The process took about 45 minutes, says Jamieson. Though he supervises a staff of more than 60 reporters and editors, Jamieson directly oversees Zernike. He made the tweak from “had” to “evidence exists.” “That was just in the course of editing the story, making the language more precise, tightening it up, and I don’t think the change at all changed the essential truth of the story, which is that you have a former Christie guy turning on him and making a big accusation.”

The Christie camp had a different take on the initial story’s “essential truth.” In an e-mail “to friends and allies” obtained Politico, Christie put forth this bit of media criticism: “A media firestorm was set off by sloppy reporting from the New York Times and its suggestion that there was actually ‘evidence’ when it was a letter alleging
that ‘evidence exists.’ Forced to change the lead almost immediately, the Times was roundly criticized, and
its editor was forced to issue this extraordinary statement to the Huffington Post: ‘We’ve made probably dozens of changes to the story to make it more precise. That was one of them. I bet there will be dozens more.'”

The Christie people are getting good at this. Last month, after MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki published an allegation by Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer that the Christie administration had held Superstorm Sandy relief funds hostage to certain development decisions in Hoboken, the Christie camp blasted away: “MSNBC is a partisan network that has been openly hostile to Governor Christie and almost gleeful in their efforts attacking him, even taking the unprecedented step of producing and airing a nearly three-minute attack ad against him this week.” That was a limp and floundering signal of desperation: Kornacki had corralled a legitimate news story and interviewed a duly elected New Jersey mayor on the record. Plus, a recent story found that Zimmer was indeed under pressure from the Christie administration on the development front. That story was in the New York Times.

And the slam against the Times over the Zegas letter, says Jamieson, has a political feel to it. “I think that the Christie administration was trying to change the discussion by focusing the attack on [Zernike] and the New York Times, and if you look at the language she wrote, it was straight down the middle,” says the Times’s Metro editor. Jamieson says he saw no need to issue a correction over the “had” v. “evidence exists” change. “I do not yet feel a correction is warranted. If down the road I feel that one is warranted, we’ll certainly do one,” he says.

“Once upon a time, when we worked just for newspapers, we spent hours finessing the lede and working the langauge and we still do that, but sometimes our readers see us edit the story,” says Jamieson.

All the back-and-forth produced a bizarre accountability moment in a follow-up story in the New York Times over the weekend: Zernike carried a byline for a piece in which she covered criticism of her own work, as follows:

The email from the governor’s office also attacked The New York Times, which first reported Mr. Wildstein’s accusations on Friday, accusing it of “sloppy reporting.” A brief story on the paper’s website initially reported that Mr. Wildstein said he had evidence that Mr. Christie had known about the lane closings earlier than he previously acknowledged; the story was changed within an hour to say that he said “evidence existed,” and that Mr. Wildstein’s own evidence referred to his accusation that Mr. Christie had been lying about him.

Danielle Rhoades Ha, a spokeswoman for The Times, said on Saturday night, “We regularly update web stories for clarity as we did in this case,” adding, “we do not note changes unless it involves an error.”

What about that, Jamieson? Did you folks discuss the ethics here? “There wasn’t a discussion. Maybe there should have been, but I am quite certain that the result of the discussion would be to keep her on the story. She’s a terrific reporter and has 100 percent of my trust,” says Jamieson.

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