The story – a Times exclusive — appeared high on the home page and the mobile app late Thursday and on Friday and then was displayed with a three-column headline on the front page.
NYT Makes Classic Non-Apology Apology For Hillary Clinton Story
July 27, 2015

Margaret Sullivan, the NY Times public editor, wrote a sort of mea culpa about their inaccurate and wrongheaded story that Hillary Clinton was facing a criminal investigation over her email. As soon as the story hit the Intertubes, it immediately took massive criticism over its truthiness from all across the country. Then Rep. Elijah Cummings knocked down the story when he said he was told there was no criminal inquiry opened up on Hillary Clinton at all, and the story continued to unravel. Finally, Sullivan responded.

The story – a Times exclusive — appeared high on the home page and the mobile app late Thursday and on Friday and then was displayed with a three-column headline on the front page in Friday’s paper. The online headline read “Criminal Inquiry Sought in Hillary Clinton’s Use of Email,” very similar to the one in print.

But aspects of it began to unravel soon after it first went online. The first major change was this: It wasn’t really Mrs. Clinton directly who was the focus of the request for an investigation. It was more general: whether government information was handled improperly in connection with her use of a personal email account.

Much later, The Times backed off the startling characterization of a “criminal inquiry,” instead calling it something far tamer sounding: it was a “security” referral.

The story was a total mess, but if you're familiar with Cokie's Law, you know the damage it was causing Hillary Clinton in the public's eye. The Times admitted as much.

But you can’t put stories like this back in the bottle – they ripple through the entire news system. So it was, to put it mildly, a mess. As a result, I’ve been spending the last couple of days asking how this could happen and how something similar can be prevented in the future.

Here's a thought. If you use anonymous sources from the government on stories and they feed you false information, you are no longer bound to protect them.

Hear that, Trey? Every sane person understands the purpose of Trey Gowdy's committee and it's not to uncover some new information on the attack, but to smear the leading Democratic candidate for the 2016 presidency. Sullivan finally gives you her take.

(Other news outlets also got confirmation of the criminal referral as they followed The Times’s story; they did not report, as an earlier version of this post suggested, that she herself was the target of the referral.)

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. Mr. Purdy told me that the reporters, whom he described as excellent and experienced, were “sent back again and again” to seek confirmation of the key elements; but while no one would discuss the specifics of who the sources were, my sense is that final confirmation came from the same person more than once.

So the same source kept confirming that Hillary was being investigated, and with no other confirmation, The Times ran with it. The Washington Post had a similar story, but refrained from saying that Clinton was the target of the investigation.

Since the news media has changed over the years into an online service, click bait has become the driving force on news instead of accuracy.

Hindsight’s easy, but I’ll take a stab at it anyway. Here’s my take:

First, consider the elements. When you add together the lack of accountability that comes with anonymous sources, along with no ability to examine the referral itself, and then mix in the ever-faster pace of competitive reporting for the web, you’ve got a mistake waiting to happen. Or, in this case, several mistakes.

Reporting a less sensational version of the story, with a headline that did not include the word “criminal,” and continuing to develop it the next day would have been a wise play. Better yet: Waiting until the next day to publish anything at all.

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.

What’s more, when mistakes inevitably happen, The Times needs to be much more transparent with readers about what is going on. Just revising the story, and figuring out the corrections later, doesn’t cut it.

Mr. Baquet, who is a former Times Washington bureau chief, told me Sunday by phone that he faults himself on this score, and he would do it differently now.

“We should have explained to our readers right away what happened here, as soon as we knew it,” he said. That could have been in an editor’s note or in a story, or in some other form, he said.

“The readers of The New York Times got whipsawed,” by all the conflicting reports and criticism, he said.

And as you would imagine, no matter if Republican Secretary of State Colin Powell used his private email, we always have the Hillary Clinton rules in play.

None of this should be used to deny the importance of The Times’s reporting on the subject of Mrs. Clinton’s email practices at the State Department, a story Mr. Schmidt broke in March. Although her partisans want the focus shifted to these errors, the fact remains that her secret email system hamstrung possible inquiries into her conduct while secretary of state both by the news media and the public under the Freedom of Information Act and by Congress. And her awarding to herself the first cull of those emails will make suspicion about what they contained a permanent part of the current campaign.

It's only a crime if Hillary does it. IOACIHDI -- there you go.

Can you help us out?

For 18 years we have been exposing Washington lies and untangling media deceit, but now Facebook is drowning us in an ocean of right wing lies. Please give a one-time or recurring donation, or buy a year's subscription for an ad-free experience. Thank you.


We welcome relevant, respectful comments. Any comments that are sexist or in any other way deemed hateful by our staff will be deleted and constitute grounds for a ban from posting on the site. Please refer to our Terms of Service for information on our posting policy.