Failure of Leadership: The NY Times Missed a Teachable Moment on Hillary

By Tom Watson

[UPDATE: The Clinton campaign's Communications Director, Jennifer Palmieri, has sent a powerful letter to Dean Baquet, Executive Editor of the New York Times. Read it here.]

The concept of proportionality informs our modern conception of justice. The penalty should fit the crime, the penance should match the sin.

Before we move on from the reprehensible episode of the New York Times and its inaccurate and unethical reporting on Hillary Clinton, this is a crucial point to make: there has been no penalty and no penance. The newspaper has (barely) admitted an error and its reporting still shows the same dismissive, belittling and negative tone toward a candidate trying to break America’s ultimate political gender barrier.

As my colleague Peter and I wrote about this shameful story:

There is a kind of intellectual rot pervading the Times where Hillary Clinton is concerned, a rot that comes from the head. Whether this is actively discussed in editorial planning meetings or just suffuses the news staff like a drifting smog of smugness and sloppy reporting is anyone’s guess. 

Erroneously reporting that the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination is the subject of a criminal inquiry and then ever so slowly walking it back in a series of revisions and non-corrections is one of the most troubling chapters in the paper’s recent history. Regardless of whether some portions of the story are correct, getting it wrong on a matter of criminality is unconscionable.

This behavior from the Times matters to the race for the presidency. It matters for the crisis of ethics in U.S. media, where one of the most accomplished, popular and powerful women in our history is regularly disparaged and disrespected by major publications.

There is only one action that New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet can take in the wake of this scandal in his newsroom. He and publisher Arthur Sulzberger must retract in its entirety the inaccurate, damaging and deeply irresponsible Times report on Hillary Clinton’s emails. And the newspaper must publicly apologize – not just to Hillary, but to its readers. Failure to do so is a failure of leadership. It is a teachable moment missed for all media.

Every news organization I’ve ever worked for would take such a step after such an egregious error.

In Monday’s column by Margaret Sullivan, the paper’s public editor (she is an ombudsman and holds no sway over the newsroom), Baquet basically threw up his hands and laid the blame on a single unnamed government source for the bad information that put the label “criminal” on what is a minor case of bureaucratic wrangling over the emails.

Baquet told Sullivan: “You had the government confirming that it was a criminal referral. I’m not sure what [the Times reporters and editors] could have done differently on that.”

But TPM’s Josh Marshall calls that blatantly false:

This is a telling statement. The 'government' didn't tell the Times anything. Anonymous people in the government told them something. Big, big difference. It's not a semantic distinction.

When the government says something, it's news - whatever its accuracy. If the government says something and it's a lie, it's news. Journalists should report it and explain why it isn't true. The fact that the government says something makes it news in itself. Relatedly, the government has obvious authority to state explain what it is doing. So if the Department of Justice issues a press release saying it is conducting a criminal investigation, a reporter doesn't need to independently confirm that. If the White House Press Secretary says the President is traveling to Great Britain, no need to confirm. Now, obviously there are various permutations of these scenarios. The government, for better or worse, often does communicate through anonymous sources. And in many cases, that information is similar, though not the same, as a formal public statement.

But the information the Times was dealing with obviously did not fall into that category. And I don't think Baquet's statement is an accident.

Neither do we. Vox’s Jonathan Allen (a Clinton critic in the past) ripped into Baquet’s explanation and the paper’s reporting, pointing to Republican Benghazi committee chairman Trey Gowdy as the ultimate source of the narrative.

I don't know who the Times's sources are, but I do know this: My reporting suggests that House Benghazi Committee Chair Trey Gowdy was fully aware of the request to the Justice Department at least a day before the Times broke the story. If he or his staff were sources, it should have been incumbent upon the Times to check every detail with multiple unconnected sources.

Exactly. It was the ranking Democrat on the committee, the widely respected Elijah Cummings, who immediately shot down the story when it broke last week. Allen rightly called this yet another example of the Clinton Rules (well documented in Peter’s post on the tone of the NYT’s coverage of Hillary’s policy roll out), and pointed how they infect both the media’s reporting and the overall political climate.

This is why Clinton's political adversaries couldn't care less about whether they're leaking things that are true or false. They score political points against her either way. And that's why reporters have to be extra careful about sourcing — not just on stories about Clinton but on those that could affect any of the presidential candidates. It's fair to say purity of motivation isn't a highly valued trait in the political realm.

Margaret Sullivan’s is a voice we admire in the public debate on ethics and journalism. She’s a good writer and a fair judge, and she excoriated her Times colleagues for their sloppiness, haste, and poor judgment calling the episode “both a messy and a regrettable chapter.”

But her criticism never addressed the long-standing pattern of getting stories about Hillary Clinton wrong, or the paper’s inherent cultural bias toward the most prominent female public servant in the United States. As Joe Conason said in the National Memo:

What she fails to do, as usual, is to examine the deeper bias infecting Times coverage of Hillary and Bill Clinton — a problem that in various manifestations dates back well over two decades.

In the paper’s ongoing coverage of the controversy over Hillary Clinton’s email practices as Secretary of State – and a related investigation by the House Select Committee on Benghazi – the pattern of slanted coverage deserves closer scrutiny by the paper’s editors, including Sullivan.

Those “anonymous sources” Sullivan briefly deplores are lurking among the members and staff of that committee’s Republican majority.

Everyone paying attention knows that this story, and those before it, slid down a slimy trough created by the Republican leadership. This is part of the naked political swiftboating tactics that begin in that committee and end in the Times newsroom, echoed in Rush Limbaugh’s radio studio and the headlines on Drudge. We’ve all seen this game before over the last two decades. And surely the Times has as well.

As Norm Ornstein wrote in a scathing criticism of the Times that appeared in The Atlantic:

This is not some minor mistake. Stories, once published, take on a life of their own. If they reinforce existing views or stereotypes, they fit perfectly into Mark Twain’s observation, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”

Sullivan herself said: “It’s hard to imagine a much more significant political story at this moment, given that she is the leading candidate for the Democratic nomination for president.”

That’s why we’re calling on Sulzberger, Baquet, and the New York Times management to formally retract the story. The Times needs a fresh start with its readers. Hillary deserves fair reporting. We need the truth.

In light of this disastrous story, we said that Clinton supporters and Democrats should rightfully view all coverage of Hillary Clinton in the New York Times with suspicion. Today, we’d argue that all New York Times readers should view the paper’s political reporting with some distrust. The damage is that bad and the Times (except for Sullivan) has been nearly silent.

Retract the story. Apologize to your readers.

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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.