The upside of the New York Times’ aggressive coverage of the FBI investigation into Russian election meddling is that the American public is learning more and more about recent history. The downside is that the newspaper keeps bumping into its archives.
In a massive article Wednesday on the FBI’s 2016 snooping into the possible nexus between Russians and the Trump presidential campaign, reporters Matt Apuzzo, Adam Goldman and Nicholas Fandos include these two paragraphs:
In late October, in response to questions from The Times, law enforcement officials acknowledged the investigation but urged restraint. They said they had scrutinized some of Mr. Trump’s advisers but had found no proof of any involvement with Russian hacking. The resulting article, on Oct. 31, reflected that caution and said that agents had uncovered no “conclusive or direct link between Mr. Trump and the Russian government.”
The key fact of the article — that the F.B.I. had opened a broad investigation into possible links between the Russian government and the Trump campaign — was published in the 10th paragraph.
That’s one heck of a concession: We buried the lead! In their book “Russian Roulette,” authors Michael Isikoff and David Corn report that editors at the New York Times “cast the absence of a conclusion as the article’s central theme rather than the fact of the investigation itself,” contrary to the wishes of the reporters.
The article in question was published on Oct. 31, 2016, and it has received a great deal of hindsight-aided scrutiny for the role it may have played in easing voters’ concerns about ties between Donald Trump and Russia. Under the bylines of Eric Lichtblau and Steven Lee Myers, the story, headlined “Investigating Donald Trump, F.B.I. Sees No Clear Link to Russia,” hit the public sphere just as other outlets — Slate and Mother Jones — published reports that began poking at the outlines of possible collusion. Following the election, then-New York Times Public Editor Liz Spayd knocked the newspaper for proceeding too timidly.
In late December, the New York Times published a scoop reporting that the FBI probe launched in July 2016 and that its existence was a secret even within law enforcement. It raised the question: How could the New York Times have reached any conclusions about such a closely held effort? New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet told the Erik Wemple Blog at the time, “It is fair to say we know a lot more now about what the government knew about Russian meddling than we did before the election. We would have cast that story differently but it was never meant to give the Trump campaign a clean bill of health. It reflected the FBI’s skepticism, which was made public after the campaign. And which was all we could report at that moment. By the way, the question of whether there was collusion remains the subject of the investigation.”
In April, fired FBI director James B. Comey’s book tour provided yet another opportunity to revisit the Halloween story. In an interview with New Yorker Editor David Remnick, Comey trashed the piece: “At least with respect to what the goals of the Russian effort were, it’s just wrong.” The article had indicated that “even the hacking into Democratic emails, F.B.I. and intelligence officials now believe, was aimed at disrupting the presidential election rather than electing Mr. Trump.”
In response to Comey’s blast, Baquet told this blog, “I think the headline was off but if you read the story I think it was NOT inaccurate based on what we knew at the time. Sort of like the Hillary Clinton story that turned out to be right.”
Credit the New York Times for the self-criticism couched in the Apuzzo-Goldman-Fandos story. More such caveats may be necessary as the paper continues to examine the back story of the 2016 election.