The New York Times' much-maligned report that originally claimed federal officials were seeking a criminal investigation of Hillary Clinton still contains a major factual error, despite undergoing two rounds of corrections and criticism from its public editor. The report claims, based on anonymous sources, that “two inspectors general” have asked for an investigation into possible mishandling of government information with regard to Clinton's email -- in fact, only one inspector general made such a referral.
Only One Inspector General Made A Referral, Contrary To The NY Times' Report
NY Times: “Two Inspectors General” Seeking DOJ Investigation Regarding Clinton Emails. The twice-corrected NY Times story, originally published July 23, 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.” [NY Times, 7/23/15]
Joint Statement From The Two Inspectors General States That Only One Of Them Made A Referral. In a joint statement released July 24, the Inspectors General of the Intelligence Community (IG IC) and the Department of State explained that the IG IC -- not both IGs -- had “made a referral” (emphasis added):
IC IG made a referral detailing the potential compromise of classified information to security officials within the Executive Branch. The main purpose of the referral was to notify security officials that classified information may exist on at least one private server and thumb drive that are not in the government's possession. An important distinction is that the IC IG did not make a criminal referral- it was a security referral made for counterintelligence purposes. The IC IG is statutorily required to refer potential compromises of national security information to the appropriate IC security officials. [Statement from the Inspectors General of the Intelligence Community and the Department of State Regarding the Review of Former Secretary Clinton's Emails, 7/24/15]
Democratic Spokesman For Select Committee On Benghazi: State Inspector General “Did Not Ask For Any Kind Of Investigation.” Politico's Dylan Byers reported on July 24:
Jennifer Werner, a Democratic spokesperson for the Select Committee on Benghazi, told the On Media blog that the State Inspector General “did not ask for any kind of investigation, criminal or otherwise.” Werner said the referral “went from the Intelligence Community IG to the FBI.”
For that reason, Werner said the Times was wrong to report that two inspectors general had asked the Justice Department to open an investigation. [Politico, 7/24/15]
NY Times Correction 1: Paper Walked Back Claim Clinton Was Target Of Requested Probe
NY Times Initially Reported Clinton Is Target Of Requested Criminal Probe Into Personal Email Use. On July 23, The New York Times published a report headlined “Criminal Inquiry Sought In Clinton's Use Of Email” which reported that two inspectors general are seeking a criminal investigation into Clinton's use of personal email while at the State Department, according to anonymous “senior government officials”:
Two 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, senior government officials said Thursday. [NewsDiff.org, 7/23/15]
NY Times Later Altered Report To Remove Claim That Clinton Is Target Of Criminal Probe. After publication, the NY Times changed their report to remove the statement that Clinton is the target of the requested criminal probe, without notification or explanation for the alteration. The new report said:
Two inspectors general have asked the Justice Department to open a criminal 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. [NewsDiff.org, 7/23/15]
NY Times Originally Denied “Factual Error,” Said “There Was No Reason” For Correction. The Washington Post's Erik Wemple reported:
One of the story's reporters, Michael Schmidt, told Politico, “It was a response to complaints we received from the Clinton camp that we thought were reasonable, and we made them.”
In an e-mail to the Erik Wemple Blog, New York Times spokeswoman Eileen Murphy notes, “As often happens, editors continued to revise this story after initial publication to make it as clear and precise as possible. There was no factual error, so there was no reason for a correction.” [The Washington Post, 7/24/15]
NY Times Subsequently Issued Factual Correction Noting Referral “Did Not Specifically Request An Investigation Into Mrs. Clinton. The Times issued a correction to their faulty report on the afternoon of July 24, explaining that Clinton was not personally the subject of the referral to investigate. The correction stated:
An earlier version of this article and an earlier headline, using information from senior government officials, misstated the nature of the referral to the Justice Department regarding Hillary Clinton's personal email account while she was secretary of state. The referral addressed the potential compromise of classified information in connection with that personal email account. It did not specifically request an investigation into Mrs. Clinton. [Media Matters, 7/24/15]
NY Times Correction 2: Paper Walked Back Claim That Referral Was “Criminal”
NY Times Again Revised Article, Issued Correction Indicating Referral Was Not “Criminal.” On July 26 the Times removed the word “criminal” from the first sentence of their story and appended the following correction:
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.” [NY Times, 7/24/15]
NY Times Public Editor Criticizes Story As “A Mess”
NYT Public Editor Sullivan: Article Suffered From “At Least Two Major Journalistic Problems.” Noting the multiple corrections to the original story, NY Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan called it a “mess” in a July 27 blog post. She wrote:
There are at least two major journalistic problems here, in my view. Competitive pressure and the desire for a scoop, led to too much speed and not enough caution.
When you add together the lack of accountability that comes with anonymous sources, along with no ability to examine the referral itself, and then mix in the ever-faster pace of competitive reporting for the web, you've got a mistake waiting to happen. Or, in this case, several mistakes.
Reporting a less sensational version of the story, with a headline that did not include the word “criminal,” and continuing to develop it the next day would have been a wise play. Better yet: Waiting until the next day to publish anything at all.
Losing the story to another news outlet would have been a far, far better outcome than publishing an unfair story and damaging The Times's reputation for accuracy. [NY Times, 7/27/15]
But NY Times Editors Continue To Defend Paper's Reporting
NYT Editor Purdy: “We Got It Wrong Because Our Very Good Sources Had It Wrong.” Sullivan reported of NY Times editor Matt Purdy, described as “a top-ranking editor directly involved with the story”:
“We got it wrong because our very good sources had it wrong,” Mr. Purdy told me. “That's an explanation, not an excuse. We have an obligation to get facts right and we work very hard to do that.”
By Friday afternoon, the Justice Department issued a terse statement, saying that there had been a referral related to the potential compromise of classified information, stating clearly that it was not a criminal referral. Mr. Purdy says he remains puzzled about why the initial inaccurate information was confirmed so clearly.
Mr. Purdy told me that the reporters, whom he described as excellent and experienced, were “sent back again and again” to seek confirmation of the key elements; but while no one would discuss the specifics of who the sources were, my sense is that final confirmation came from the same person more than once.
The reporters and editors were not able to see the referral itself, Mr. Purdy said, and that's the norm in such cases; anything else would be highly unusual, he said. So they were relying on their sources' interpretation of it. All at The Times emphasized that the core of the initial story - the request for an investigation - is true, and that it was major news, as was the later development. [NY Times, 7/27/15]
NYT Executive Editor Baquet Defends Editors And Reporters Who Worked On The Story. Sullivan reported that while NY Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet found fault with how the paper had explained the changes in the piece to its readers, he defended the story itself:
But, Mr. Baquet said, he does not fault the reporters or editors directly involved.
“You had the government confirming that it was a criminal referral,” Mr. Baquet said. “I'm not sure what they could have done differently on that.”
Washington Post's Wemple: Baquet Provides “Exoneration” Of Staffers For “Gargantuan Mistake.” Highlighting Baquet's comments to Sullivan, Wemple wrote: “That's quite a statement -- an exoneration of New York Times staffers for perpetrating what can be described only as a gargantuan mistake.” [Washington Post, 7/27/15]