The New York Times has begun to quietly reverse course on reports about former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's private email use, after Times public editor Margaret Sullivan admitted that the publication's initial misleading insinuation that Clinton violated the law was “not without fault.” The new, more accurate reporting underscores the publication's initial sloppiness and rush to judgment.
The New York Times' Public Editor Admits Fault In Publication's Initial Reporting On Emails
NYT Public Editor Admits Original Story “Was Not Without Fault.” On March 8, the Times' public editor Margaret Sullivan responded to criticism of the paper's initial reporting on Clinton's use of private email while secretary of state, stating that the story “was not without fault” and “should have been clearer about precisely what regulations might have been violated.” [The New York Times, 3/8/15]
The New York Times Quietly Shifts Positions In New Report On Clinton's Emails
NYT Then: Clinton “May Have Violated” Federal Law With Email Use. In its initial report, the Times accused Clinton of possibly having “violated federal requirements that officials' correspondence be retained as part of the agency's record” with her use of personal email for official government business during her time at the department, specifically citing the Federal Records Act. [The New York Times, 3/2/15]
NYT Now: Guidelines On Email Use Were Vague, "Until Three Months Ago There Was No Law." The Times' earlier allegation that Clinton may have violated federal law was undercut by a subsequent report published over a week later explaining that oversight of email guidelines have been “vague” at the time Clinton worked at the State Department:
Members of President Obama's cabinet have a wide variety of strategies, shortcuts and tricks for handling their email, and until three months ago there was no law setting out precisely what they had to do with it, and when. And while the majority of Obama administration officials use government email to conduct their business, there has never been any legal prohibition against using a personal account.
Hillary Rodham Clinton's disclosure that she exclusively used a private email address while she was secretary of state and later deleted thousands of messages she deemed “personal” opens a big picture window into how vague federal email guidelines have been for the most senior government leaders. [The New York Times, 3/13/15]
NYT Then: Clinton's “Aides Took No Actions To Have Her Personal Emails Preserved On Department Servers At The Time, As Required By The Federal Records Act.” In its initial report, the Times asserted that Clinton's “aides took no actions to have her personal emails preserved on department servers at the time, as required by the Federal Records Act.” [The New York Times, 3/2/15]
NYT Now: Agencies Were Not Required To Preserve Emails Rapidly Until After Clinton Left Office. Contrary to their initial assertion that Clinton's aides were required to preserve her records at the time, the Times later reported that the system for preserving emails was not put in place until after Clinton left the State Department:
While many agencies' current practice is to print and file emails deemed worthy of saving, an Obama administration directive in 2012 mandates that agencies must devise a system for retaining and preserving email records electronically by the end of 2016.
Mr. Obama signed legislation late last year requiring government officials who use personal email addresses for official business to bring those records into the government within 20 days. Before that, the National Archives and Records Administration simply required those messages at some point to be provided to the government.
“The wiggle room for Mrs. Clinton is that those policies didn't come into play until after she was gone” from the State Department in early 2013, said Thomas S. Blanton, the director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University, an independent, nongovernmental organization focused on transparency. [The New York Times, 3/13/15]
NYT Then: Clinton's Use Of Private Email Is Seen As “Alarming.” In their original report, the Times claimed that Clinton's use of private email was seen as “alarming” and a “serious breach” by officials, quoting a former director from the National Archives who claimed it was “difficult to conceive of a scenario” where such practices would be justified:
Her expansive use of the private account was alarming to current and former National Archives and Records Administration officials and government watchdogs, who called it a serious breach.
“It is very difficult to conceive of a scenario -- short of nuclear winter -- where an agency would be justified in allowing its cabinet-level head officer to solely use a private email communications channel for the conduct of government business,” said Jason R. Baron, a lawyer at Drinker Biddle & Reath who is a former director of litigation at the National Archives and Records Administration. [The New York Times, 3/2/15]
NYT Now: “There Has Never Been Any Legal Prohibition Against” Using Personal Email Accounts. Despite having previously scandalized Clinton's use of private emails as “alarming,” the Times later clarified that “there has never been any legal prohibition” against the practice and that “Members of President Obama's cabinet” use a “wide variety of strategies” to handle their emails:
Members of President Obama's cabinet have a wide variety of strategies, shortcuts and tricks for handling their email, and until three months ago there was no law setting out precisely what they had to do with it, and when. And while the majority of Obama administration officials use government email to conduct their business, there has never been any legal prohibition against using a personal account. [The New York Times, 3/13/15]