With a healthy combination of defensiveness and criticism, New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan today addressed some of the recent criticisms levied upon the paper for their original story on Hillary Clinton's emails. While Sullivan sticks up for the reporting and takes some digs at the great David Brock at Media Matters for America in the process, she also makes a key admission:
However, it was not without fault...The story should have been much clearer about precisely what regulations might have been violated, and when they took effect. The references are too vague..."Also, regarding which specific regulation Secretary Clinton may have violated:
As The Times noted to (David) Brock, those regulations did exist well before 2014, when the National Records Act was amended; they were included in the National Archives and Records Administration 2009 regulations.She admits, however:
A paragraph that gave chapter and verse on that should have been in the story.I have several guesses about why the 2009 regulations were not included in Schmidt's original piece: The change occurred while Clinton was already serving at State, it's buried in bureaucratic regulations from a different department (see page 51050, section 1236.22b), and it even appears to be vague enough to allow for Clinton's private email account anyway (it's "sent or received" not "sent and received"...not to get technical or anything). As you can see, we're deep into the weeds here.
Obviously, it was far easier and more salacious for the Times to simply insinuate that she "possibly" broke some unreported rules so that their self-proclaimed "revelation" could make as big a splash as possible. They could worry about cleaning up the mess later.
Unsurprisingly, Ms. Sullivan reached out to those responsible for the original story and got complete obliviousness.
I talked to Mr. Schmidt and to the Washington bureau chief, Carolyn Ryan, about the reaction. Mr. Schmidt, who turned up the email story as he covered a Congressional committee on Benghazi, said negative reaction didn’t concern him: “The pushback is to be expected. I’m surprised there wasn’t more.”
He said he thought the story’s detail was specific enough, and he dismissed any concerns about vagueness. “I thought it was pretty clear.”
Ms. Ryan, who is in charge of The Times’s political coverage, edited the story Monday night. She, too, rejected the idea that it should have been more specific, describing it as “incredibly solid.”And as we saw after the initial story broke, such criticism indeed did not make much difference to them, as Schmidt later attempted to link the whole thing to Benghazi without any solid evidence. We'll need to keep an eye on this guy, but obviously he's not the only one.
To her credit, the Times public editor ends with some advice that her paper would be highly advised to heed.
There are lessons to be learned from this episode.
As The Times continues to cover Mrs. Clinton into 2016, it will be dealing with dozens of dust-ups like this one. It’s going to be a long campaign, and Clinton coverage inevitably will be microscopically examined and fraught with conflicting reaction.
Attacks on the reporting will come no matter what. But The Times can do itself — and its readers — a lot of good by making sure that every story is airtight: solidly sourced, written with particular clarity and impartiality, and edited with a prosecutorial eye.That's really all we ask. Thank you, Ms. Sullivan.