Times “Not Without Fault” Says Public Editor

New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan is right that the Times story last week, which falsely charged that Hillary Clinton might have broken federal rules regarding her email practices was “not without fault.” According to Sullivan, “the story should have been much clearer about precisely what regulations might have been violated, and when they took effect.”

But Sullivan misses the main point, and in doing so continues to leave the wrong and unfair impression that Clinton might have violated federal rules when she plainly didn't.

In defending the story's charge, Sullivan cites federal regulations from 2009 that “required that any emails sent or received from personal accounts be preserved as part of the agency's records.”

As the State Department said last week, in 2014 Secretary Clinton turned over to the department some 55,000 pages of emails from her personal account. Clearly the emails were preserved, as the rules required. They are part of the agency's records, and Secretary Clinton has called on the department to release all of them to the public, an unprecedented act of transparency.

The 2009 regulations contained no real-time preservation requirements, according to the State Department. The time requirements were added to the law that I referenced in my letter to the Times, and which passed after Clinton left office. As such, they are not pertinent to her tenure. Moreover, more than 90 percent of the emails from Clinton's personal account were sent to official State Department email addresses, and thus were preserved in real-time in the agency's records, exceeding the requirements of the law as it existed at the time.

Sullivan failed entirely to confront the fact that the main authority cited by the paper on the Clinton emails, a former top lawyer at the National Archives and Records Administration, said the day after the article appeared that Clinton had not violated the law, undercutting the article's central contention. Indeed, the Times cited no legal authority whatsoever to say a violation had occurred or even might have occurred.

Clearly, what happened here is that the reporter, Michael Schmidt, and presumably his editor, Carolyn Ryan, mistakenly believed that Clinton's email practices violated federal rules, and despite finding no source to back them up, they published the allegation on the Times front page anyway.

I don't know what that is, but it isn't journalism.

In any event, I welcome Sullivan's conclusion that the Times can learn from this controversy by ensuring subsequent stories are “airtight.”

Sullivan's reply to my letter can be read in full here.