What The NY Times Editors' Note Doesn't Answer About The Botched Clinton Emails Story

NY TimesThe New York Times has published a 368-word editors' note in an attempt to end the firestorm of criticism that has engulfed the paper since they published a repeatedly corrected story that originally claimed inspectors general were calling for a federal criminal investigation of Hillary Clinton. The note, which largely expresses regret that the paper was not swift enough to offer public corrections rather than a critique of the flawed reporting, still leaves many questions unanswered.

On July 23, the Times published a report headlined “Criminal Inquiry Sought In Clinton's Use Of Email” which stated that "[t]wo 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." The Times has since issued two corrections, acknowledging that the referral in question was not criminal and did not specifically request an investigation into Clinton herself. They have yet to correct the piece's remaining error to indicate that the referral was actually made by only one inspector general.

Media observers have harshly criticized the Times' reporting and its “jarring” attempts to explain its failure, with some stating that the events indicate that the paper “has a problem covering Hillary Clinton.” Times public editor Margaret Sullivan has written that there were “at least two major journalistic problems” in the crafting of the story, calling the paper's handling of the story “a mess.” Meanwhile, in an interview with Sullivan, Times executive editor Dean Baquet expressed regret that the paper had been slow to issue public corrections, but defended his editors and reporters, saying, “I'm not sure what they could have done differently” on the story.

The Times' July 27 editors' note takes a similar tact, stating that editors should have appended corrections to the story more quickly without apologizing for the failures in reporting that made those corrections necessary.

Several questions previously asked by Media Matters about the story are answered by the editors' note or by Sullivan's reporting: the Times' sources included ones from “Capitol Hill” and the Justice Department, the Times did not see the referral itself before publication, and there's no evidence the publication reached out to the Democrats or inspectors general who could have debunked their false story.

But many questions remain unanswered.

Did The Times Have A Source For Its Report That Clinton Was The Target Of The Alleged Investigation?

As Sullivan noted in her response, “It's hard to imagine a much more significant political story at the moment” than one claiming that federal inspectors general were seeking a criminal investigation of Clinton. And yet, the Times walked back its report that Clinton was the target of the alleged probe almost immediately after being contacted by aides to Clinton. According to the editor's note:

Shortly after the article was published online, however, aides to Mrs. Clinton contacted one reporter to dispute the account. After consultation between editors and reporters, the first paragraph was edited to say the investigation was requested “into whether sensitive government information was mishandled,” rather than into whether Mrs. Clinton herself mishandled information. 

Notably, the editors' note does not indicate that the Times attempted to reconfirm its reporting with its sources before making those changes. That seems curious, as according to Sullivan's reporting, the Times' sources had confirmed that the referral “was directed at Mrs. Clinton herself”: 

The story developed quickly on Thursday afternoon and evening after tips from various sources, including on Capitol Hill. The reporters had what Mr. Purdy described as “multiple, reliable, highly placed sources,” including some “in law enforcement.” I think we can safely read that as the Justice Department.

The sources said not only was there indeed a referral but also that it was directed at Mrs. Clinton herself, and that it was a criminal referral.

If the Times did in fact have sources telling them that Clinton was the target of the probe, why wouldn't they attempt to reconfirm that rather than changing their story simply because of complaints from Clinton's aides? Who told the Times that Clinton was the target? Or was that an unsupported logical leap the Times reporters made on their own?

Who Were The Times' “Capitol Hill” Sources And What Did They Tell The Paper?

The editors' note claims that the paper was led astray by “multiple high-level government sources.” It gives no indication of who those sources were, but notes that the Justice Department confirmed to other news agencies that a “criminal” probe had been sought before walking back that description later in the day.

But Sullivan's reporting confirms that the Times relied on “tips from various sources, including on Capitol Hill.” Since Rep. Elijah Cummings, the ranking member on the House Select Committee on Benghazi, issued multiple statements debunking the Times' reporting in the wake of the report, it seems clear that Democrats were not among those sources. 

Cummings, in saying that the story was the result of “leaks” intended to damage Clinton that go “against the credibility of our committee,” essentially suggested on MSNBC's Hardball that Republicans on the Benghazi Committee were responsible for faulty information. Cummings has previously criticized the “reckless pattern of selective Republican leaks and mischaracterizations of evidence relating to the Benghazi attacks,” a claim supported by numerous examples

So who were the Times' “Capitol Hill” sources, and what did they say? Why is the paper continuing to provide anonymity to sources who apparently fed them false information?

Was Executive Editor Baquet Involved In The Production Of The Botched Report?

The Times editors' note cites the involvement of unnamed “editors,” while Sullivan's reporting names “a top-ranking editor directly involved with the story, Matt Purdy.”

Was Purdy, the paper's deputy executive editor, the highest-ranking editor involved with the story's production? As Sullivan noted, the story's potential political impact is difficult to overstate -- so did Baquet himself review the report before its publication? Why or why not?

Will There Be Any Repercussions For The Times' Failure?

Both the editors' note and Baquet's comments to Sullivan suggest that the paper hopes to blame its sources, deny any real fault in its reporting, sweep its botched story under the rug, and move on.

But as criticism continues to mount, it's unclear whether they will be able to do so. Media Matters Chairman David Brock has called on the paper to commission a review exploring “the process of reporting and editing at The New York Times that has allowed flawed, fact-free reporting on so-called scandals involving Hillary Clinton and report back to readers.” Talking Points Memo's Josh Marshall has suggested the need for a “J-school intervention.” And American Enterprise Institute resident scholar Norm Ornstein called the errors a “huge embarrassment” that “is a direct challenge to [the paper's] fundamental credibility,” adding, “Someone should be held accountable here, with suspension or other action that fits the gravity of the offense.”

What, if anything, will the Times do to get back its credibility on Clinton reporting?