New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan spent the weekend speaking with top newspaper officials in an attempt to track down what went wrong with the newspaper’s flawed account of a request for a probe related to the e-mail account used by Hillary Clinton during her tenure as secretary of state. Errors in the story, said Executive Editor Dean Baquet in an interview with Sullivan, “may have been unavoidable.”
“You had the government confirming that it was a criminal referral,” Baquet said in a phone interview with the public editor. “I’m not sure what they could have done differently on that.”
That’s quite a statement — an exoneration of New York Times staffers for perpetrating what can be described only as a gargantuan mistake. Have a look at the corrective language that resides at the foot of the story:
Correction: July 25, 2015
An article and a headline in some editions on Friday about a request to the Justice Department for an investigation regarding Hillary Clinton’s personal email account while she was secretary of state misstated the nature of the request, using information from senior government officials. It addressed the potential compromise of classified information in connection with that email account. It did not specifically request an investigation into Mrs. Clinton.
Correction: July 26, 2015
An article in some editions on Friday about a request to the Justice Department for an investigation regarding Hillary Clinton’s personal email account while she was secretary of state referred incorrectly, using information from senior government officials, to the request. It was a “security referral,” pertaining to possible mishandling of classified information, officials said, not a “criminal referral.”
The lede of the story, published online last Thursday night, now states, “Two inspectors general have asked the Justice Department to open an investigation into whether sensitive government information was mishandled in connection with the personal email account Hillary Rodham Clinton used as secretary of state, senior government officials said Thursday.”
In deference to Baquet — and as pointed out by Sullivan — the Times was not the only outlet to get confirmation that a criminal referral was in the works. And staffers told Sullivan that this was no one-source wonder. Matt Purdy, the story’s direct editor, noted that the original piece rested on “multiple, reliable, highly placed sources.” Perhaps in light of what unfolded on Friday, Purdy will reconsider that second adjective.
In a Friday statement, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), ranking member of the House oversight committee, lumped the Clinton e-mail story in with other instances in which news outlets have attempted to report on documents they’ve never seen. ABC News in 2013 famously mis-portrayed some Obama administration e-mails regarding Benghazi in large part because they were described by sources — and not handed over in full. A month ago, Politico, apparently relying on the same sourcing strategy, inaccurately abridged an e-mail exchange between Clinton and loyalist Sidney Blumenthal. “This is the latest example in a series of inaccurate leaks to generate false front-page headlines—only to be corrected later,” said Cummings in a statement.
Pushback on that point comes from the Times’ Purdy, who told Sullivan that relying on sources to characterize a referral is “the norm in such cases; anything else would be highly unusual,” as Sullivan summed up his thoughts.
Fine, but! The suggestion that the New York Times had few other options just cannot be right. There had to be other approaches to nailing the story down properly the first time. Sullivan suggests slowing down and developing a wariness of anonymous sources.
More phone calls could have helped, as well. A Democratic spokesman for the House oversight committee, for instance, told the Erik Wemple Blog on Friday: “Unfortunately, the New York Times did not check with us before running its story, even though we have offered to help in the past and could have corrected these errors before they showed up on the front page. We do not know who the New York Times talked to, but we talked to the inspectors general themselves.”
One further thing: Michael S. Schmidt, one of the reporters on the story, said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Friday that the Clinton campaign “came at us very strong and very late and very forcefully.” Maybe another reason to sit on the story overnight.