New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan published a column examining the problems with the Times' error-riddled story about Hillary Clinton's emails. Sullivan strongly criticized the paper for running a “sensational” story before it was ready and for not being transparent with readers about revising it.
On July 23, the Times published a story by Michael S. Schmidt and Matt Apuzzo claiming that two federal inspectors general had requested a “criminal” referral about whether Clinton had sent classified information via a personal email server. Over the next few days, the paper revised the story numerous times, pulling back on several of its main allegations. In the most recent version of the story, the criminal allegation has been removed, as has the impression that Clinton herself was personally under a probe.
In her column, Sullivan says the paper's handling of the story was “to put it mildly, a mess.” Citing the major allegations in the first version of the story, Sullivan notes that “you can't put stories like this back in the bottle - they ripple through the entire news system.” At least one presidential candidate has echoed the incorrect statements in the Times story.
After speaking to reporters and editors at the Times who worked on the story, Sullivan concludes, “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.”
She says the Times should have chosen to report “a less sensational version of the story” without a headline including the word “criminal,” or waited “until the next day to publish anything at all.” She adds, “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.”
Sullivan also takes the Times' lethargic and opaque corrections to task, noting, “Just revising the story, and figuring out the corrections later, doesn't cut it,” and that the changes to the paper's inaccurate reporting “were handled as they came along, with little explanation to readers.”
According to Sullivan, the paper should have a discussion not only about increasing transparency, but also about its use of anonymous sources, “Mr. Baquet and Mr. Purdy said that would happen, especially on the issue of transparency to readers. In my view, that discussion must also include the rampant use of anonymous sources, and the need to slow down and employ what might seem an excess of caution before publishing a political blockbuster based on shadowy sources.”
The column concludes, “When things do go wrong, readers deserve a thorough, immediate explanation from the top. None of that happened here.”
This is not the first time Sullivan has pointed out problems with the paper's Clinton coverage. She previously took note of “the oddly barbed tone” of some of its Clinton pieces.
Yet despite the trouble generated by rushing for the scoop on another Clinton story, executive editor Dean Baquet seems reluctant to fault the story's editors and reporters. Discussing the error over “criminal,” Baquet reportedly told Sullivan, “you had the government confirming that it was a criminal referral,” adding, “I'm not sure what they could have done differently on that.”
As Washington Post writer Erik Wemple points out, Baquet's comment is effectively “an exoneration of New York Times staffers for perpetrating what can be described only as a gargantuan mistake.”