This morning, The New York Times issued a second substantial correction to its anonymously-sourced report that originally hyped a potential Department of Justice investigation into former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's use of personal email. The paper has now removed the claim -- which appeared in both the article's headline and first sentence -- that two inspectors general were seeking a “criminal” investigation into the handling of Clinton's emails.
The paper has not addressed numerous lingering questions about both the sourcing and vetting of its report, with their corrections instead blaming the errors on “information from senior government officials” who remain anonymous. Times public editor Margaret Sullivan indicated on Twitter that she plans to weigh in on the story on Monday.
A comparison of the opening sentence of the July 23 article as originally published and how it currently appears on the Times website underscores the deeply flawed nature of the paper's report. In less than 48 hours, the article went from alleging a request for a “criminal investigation” of Clinton herself to “an investigation” into whether information had been mishandled in connection with her email account.
Here's the story's original opening, which appeared under the headline “Criminal Inquiry Sought In Clinton's Use of Email”:
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.
And here's how it currently appears, as of 2:30 p.m. EST on July 25:
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.
The changes to the Times' original story have come as their reporting has unraveled.
Shortly after publication, the paper walked back the allegation that Clinton herself would be the target of the supposed criminal probe. While the Times made these changes without issuing a formal correction -- a spokesperson originally claimed it was unnecessary because there was no “factual error” -- it reversed course several hours later and appended a correction to its piece, explaining that the referral in question “did not specifically request an investigation into Mrs. Clinton.”
But the Times hadn't only botched the target of the inquiry, it misstated its nature as well. Yesterday, Rep. Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democratic member of the Benghazi Select Committee, released a statement saying that he had personally spoken with the State Department Inspector General and the Intelligence Community Inspector General and “both confirmed directly to me that they never asked the Justice Department to launch a criminal investigation of Secretary Clinton's email usage. Instead, they said this was a 'routine' referral, and they have no idea how the New York Times got this so wrong.”
Additionally, a Justice Department official reportedly said yesterday -- apparently contradicting earlier statements from the DOJ -- that the referral over the emails was not “criminal.”
During an appearance on MSNBC's Hardball, Rep. Cummings called out the Times for still labeling the investigation “criminal” in its headline despite evidence to the contrary. This morning, the paper revised the article once again to remove references to a criminal investigation and added a second correction to the bottom of its piece:
In addition, government officials who initially said the request was for a criminal investigation later said it was not a “criminal referral” but a “security referral” pertaining to possible mishandling of classified information.
As Media Matters laid out yesterday, there are several significant questions about the Times' handling of the story, which originally levied the bombshell allegation that a criminal investigation had been sought into a leading candidate for the presidency based on anonymous sourcing. Those questions include the sources for the paper's faulty information, whether the Times saw or attempted to see the referral document itself, whether the paper reached out to Cummings or any other Democrats on the Benghazi committee, and whether it contacted the inspectors general before publication.
In a statement, Cummings highlighted the report's sourcing, calling the Times story “the latest example in a series of inaccurate leaks to generate false front-page headlines -- only to be corrected later -- and they have absolutely nothing to do with the attacks in Benghazi or protecting our diplomatic corps overseas.” Media have frequently been forced to walk back their initially flawed reports on Clinton's emails.