The New York Times Has a Very Serious Hillary Clinton Problem

By Peter Daou and Tom Watson

We love the New York Times. As New Yorkers, it’s part of our lives. We both know great journalists there. The Times is an institution that would leave New York and the country culturally poorer for its disappearance. In the 90s, Tom was a Times columnist on media and technology. Even earlier as a young political reporter in the Bronx, he did some stringing for the city’s paper of record. We respect the paper’s history and place in both the city and the world.

But the New York Times has a very serious Hillary Clinton problem. Through the shoddy, over-reaching work of a handful of its many talented reporters and the bad choices of a few editors, the paper seems to be actively running a campaign to prevent the election of the first woman president of the United States.

After running a story that initially - and falsely - described Hillary as the target of a federal criminal probe related to her emails, then having to retract a good portion of it, it’s not hard for readers to conclude that the New York Times opposes Hillary as a matter of policy.

Think Progress breaks down the events:

The New York Times broke a big story on Thursday night. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, the Times reported, could be the subject of a criminal investigation by the Department of Justice because of the personal email account she used as secretary of state. The Times reported that two inspectors general had asked for the criminal probe.

This would be a pretty big deal if true. But as the story unfolded, things became a bit more complicated. Most importantly, the Justice Department has said that it never actually received a request for a criminal probe into Clinton’s email, contradicting the New York Times story. Prior to that announcement, the Times made small but significant changes to its copy, and a high-ranking congressman said the Inspector General’s request was about something entirely different.

Reuters reported that the Justice Department said that it had indeed received a request to look at Clinton’s email, but that it wasn’t a request for a criminal investigation. Instead, the story suggested that the requested investigation may be about how the emails were handled as they were being prepared to be released to the public, alluding to concerns that they may not have adequately censored classified information.

If Cumming’s statements are correct, however, those emails would not have been previously marked as classified, meaning Clinton would not be held responsible.

Newsweek is blunt:

What the hell is happening at The New York Times?

In March, the newspaper published a highly touted article about Hillary Clinton’s use of a personal email account that, as I wrote in an earlier column, was wrong in its major points. While there has since been a lot of partisan hullaballoo about “email-bogus-gate”—something to be expected when the story involves a political party’s presidential front-runner—the reality remained that, when it came to this story, there was no there there.

Then, on Thursday night, the Times dropped a bombshell: Two government inspectors general had made a criminal referral to the Justice Department about Clinton and her handling of the emails. The story was largely impenetrable, because at no point did it offer even a suggestion of what might constitute a crime. By Friday morning, the Times did what is known in the media trade as a “skin back”—the article now said the criminal referral wasn’t about Clinton but about the department’s handling of emails. Still, it conveyed no indication of what possible crime might be involved.

The story seemed to further fall apart on Friday morning when Representative Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) issued a statement saying that he had spoken to the inspector general of the State Department and that there had been no criminal referral regarding Clinton’s email usage. 

So had the Times mixed up a criminal referral—a major news event—with a notification to the department responsible for overseeing FOIA errors that might affect some documents’ release? 

...The heavy breathing of deception or incompetence by the Times doesn’t stop there. In fact, almost every paragraph at the top of the story is wrong, misleading or fundamentally deceptive.

A story like this is a disaster for a newspaper’s reputation. That this is not the first time it has occurred in relation to Hillary’s campaign makes the problem even worse. The original story was edited with no explanation, leaving the false “criminal probe” narrative in both the print edition and thousands of links and shares online. The story’s sourcing was anonymous and thin and, as we know thanks to ranking Democratic member Elijah Cummings, most likely originated in the politically motivated special committee chaired by Republican Rep. Trey Gowdy.

The Clinton campaign didn’t mince words: "It is now more clear than ever that the New York Times report claiming there is a criminal inquiry sought in Hillary Clinton’s use of email is false. It has now been discredited both by the Justice Department and the Ranking Member of the House Oversight Committee. This incident shows the danger of relying on reckless, inaccurate leaks from partisan sources."

Every journalist makes mistakes; every news organization seeks to correct errors in its stories. But the rush to publish a false and unsubstantiated story (the paper sent “breaking news” texts late last night, as if war had been declared) adds to a troubling pattern where the paper’s reporting on Hillary is concerned.

Times readers are not stupid. They know the GOP House leadership is selectively leaking information aimed at damaging the Democratic front-runner and preventing the election of the first woman president. They also realize ever since the paper’s cynical deal with the author of the anti-Hillary propaganda volume ‘Clinton Cash’ (an arrangement criticized by the paper’s excellent public editor) that the New York Times has a close relationship with that GOP leadership, its partisan researchers, and the select committee chairman.

If the Times has decided to play the role Drudge used to play, i.e. the outlet of choice to leak anti-Clinton propaganda, the harm will not be to Hillary but to the paper itself.

UPDATE: The Times has published a follow-up story backing off the false allegation of a criminal probe, which was an explosive and dangerous claim to make about a presidential candidate. However, the matters discussed in the new article remain serious and as Hillary says, "We all have a responsibility to get this right.” 

As #HillaryMen, we do not claim Hillary is perfect, nor do we agree with her on every issue. But we are steadfast in our commitment to defend her against spurious attacks and exaggerated claims. The unfolding of this story illustrates how the desperate urge to take her down can backfire.

We also want to point out the irresponsibility of Times logic of this sort: If X is illegal, and Hillary Clinton did X, then Hillary Clinton did something illegal. While logically consistent, it is an easy way to make a claim of criminal behavior where absolutely none exists or where none has been alleged or proved. Using that same logic, we could tarnish any of the Republican candidates with fabricated or incorrect claims.

UPDATE 2: Hillary addressed the email issue after an event in Iowa, stating unequivocally:

I am confident that I never sent or received any information that was classified at the time it was sent and received. What I think you're seeing here is a very typical kind of discussion, to some extent disagreement among various parts of the government, over what should or should not be publicly released.

Talk Left provides legal perspective, bolstering Hillary's comments:

The IC finished its "assessment" of State's refusal to abide by their "recommendations." A "counterintelligence" referral was made, knowing of course Trey Gowdy would leak it. But the leak got out of hand, and the New York Times bungled the story. As a result the IGs had to come out and say there was no criminal referral by the IC IG. But they weren't dropping their hammer against State. Thus the allegation of "classified info" was restated - to keep the pressure on State.

And Hillary Clinton is caught in the cross fire. That's the real story here.


Peter Daou and Tom Watson founded #HillaryMen to provide actionable analysis of the 2016 campaign focusing on the gender barrier in U.S. politics. Peter is a former senior digital adviser to Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Global Initiative. He is a veteran of two presidential campaigns (Kerry '04 and Clinton '08). Tom is an author and Columbia University lecturer who advises companies and non-profits on social activism.