Veteran Editors And Journalists Rip NY Times' "Ready-Fire-Aim" Approach On Clinton Emails
Times Editors Urged To Ask "What Did Your Source Tell You? Who Are Your Sources And What Do We Need To Do Now To Get Accurate Information?"
Blog ››› ››› JOE STRUPP
Veteran newspaper editors and other longtime journalists are harshly criticizing how The New York Times has handled its recent botched story related to Hillary Clinton's emails, calling out the paper for failing to take responsibility for its errors and for being slow to offer corrections for its mistakes sparked by anonymous sourcing.
The concerns stem from the July 23 story originally headlined "Criminal Inquiry Sought In Clinton's Use Of Email," which stated that "[t]wo inspectors general have asked the Justice Department to open a criminal investigation into whether Hillary Rodham Clinton mishandled sensitive government information on a private email account she used as secretary of state."
The Times has since issued two corrections, noting that the referral in question was not criminal and did not specifically request an investigation into Clinton herself. Critics noted that the Times did not issue corrections in either case until long after it was clear they could not support their reporting.
Media observers have criticized the Times' reporting and its poor attempts to explain its mistakes, with some stating that the events indicate that the paper "has a problem covering Hillary Clinton." Norm Ornstein in The Atlantic called it a "huge embarrassment," while former Times reporter Kurt Eichenwald referred to the story as "bungled" in Newsweek.
Times public editor Margaret Sullivan has written that there were "at least two major journalistic problems" in the crafting of the story, calling the paper's handling of the story "a mess." Meanwhile, in an interview with Sullivan, Times executive editor Dean Baquet expressed regret that the paper had been slow to issue public corrections, but defended his editors and reporters, saying, "I'm not sure what they could have done differently" on the story.
Such actions and reactions are not sitting well with some of the news industry's top journalists and former editors, who point to the problems such anonymous sourcing can create and the Times' lack of professionalism in failing to swiftly own up to them.
"I agree with the public editor that if you are The New York Times you need to be sure-footed and walk cautiously and accurately," said Frank Sesno, former CNN Washington correspondent and current director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at The George Washington University. "I hope this is not a harbinger of a rapid-fire news cycle in campaign 2016 where news organizations are competing so fiercely and so rapidly that this sort of thing happens again. They are correcting it reluctantly and sloppily. You have to have a culture of transparency and a culture of accountability."
Sesno added that he found it "extraordinary" that "they got so many elements wrong and they got the correction wrong, in the way they revealed what had happened and why."
Tom Fiedler, former editor of The Miami Herald and a one-time political reporter for that paper, also cited the Times appearing to favor speed over accuracy.
"Although I have no inside information, I think The Times staff is increasingly inclined to do these 'ready-fire-aim' stories about Hillary because they feel the hot breath of the WSJ [Wall Street Journal] on their necks, especially when it comes to stories that slam Hillary," he said via email. "The WSJ could care less about a Times' story that puts Hillary in a positive light. But the WSJ will go nuts if The Times scoops them with an HRC hatchet job. So all the incentive in the Times' newsroom is to wield that hatchet if only to annoy the WSJ. Just a theory."
Fiedler also speculated that Baquet may be privately criticizing the reporters and editors involved in the story's production while defending them publicly, saying that he engaged in such behavior when his own reporters had "screwed up."
Tim Franklin, past editor of the Indianapolis Star, Orlando Sentinel and Baltimore Sun, said he understands Baquet supporting his reporters. But he said that it is also necessary in such cases for papers to be prompt with corrections.
"I think in this case, we live in a media environment where stories get shared, we are also talking about a story involving alleged criminal activity of a presidential candidate," Franklin said. "So there is a premium on transparency in these cases. You don't want to leave the impression among readers that you are trying to bury a mistake."
He later added, "I think in this situation the editors need to do forensics with reporters; What did you have? What did your source tell you? Who are your sources and what do we need to do now to get accurate information? It is a first step you need to take quickly. It is apparent you need to correct this story and append the story at the top and an explanation as to why."
Kelly McBride, an ethics instructor at The Poynter Institute, said the Times did not take into account the readers who likely saw the incorrect story via a mobile device, but not the corrections.
"While they corrected it in their traditional correction format, they pushed that story out on mobile," she said. "They never sent out a mobile push that said the correction, and 'we got it wrong.' By not sending out a correction in mobile they lost a huge swath of the audience that received the push alert but didn't swipe through to the story."
For Lucy Dalglish, dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, the corrective needs are obvious: "If you have an anonymous source, you usually have confidence in what that source says and if you get it wrong, you have to correct yourself."