NYTimes Public Editor on Sanders Story: Yeah, We Screwed Up

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For those who haven’t read the accusations of bias and irresponsible journalism against New York Times editors following a series highly questionable revisions on a story about Bernie Sanders’ legislative experience in Congress, start at Medium and finish with Matt Taibbi’s piece in Rolling Stone. Short version: A few hours after a piece by Jennifer Steinhauer called “Bernie Sanders Scored Victories For Years Via Legislative Side Doors” went up online, there were significant changes made by editors to turn the piece from “pretty positive” to “vaguely negative.” The changes included the addition of paragraphs like these:

But in his presidential campaign Mr. Sanders is trying to scale up those kinds of proposals as a national agenda, and there is little to draw from his small-ball legislative approach to suggest that he could succeed.

Mr. Sanders is suddenly promising not just a few stars here and there, but the moon and a good part of the sun, from free college tuition paid for with giant tax hikes and a huge increase in government health care, which has made even liberal Democrats skeptical.

There’s a lot more, much of it subtle, some of it not, and you should check out all the nitty-gritty details in the articles linked above. But today’s update is that Margaret Sullivan, the Times’ public editor, wrote a review of the whole saga titled “Were Changes to Sanders Article ‘Stealth Editing?’” Amazingly, considering how the paper of record has dodged accusations of an obvious pro-Clinton bias this election cycle, Sullivan actually took some responsibility on behalf of the Times. The meat of the accountability section:

Everyone agrees that factual corrections have to be noted. As for editing changes in stories that are already up: I’ve written repeatedly that most do not need to be flagged to readers’ attention; doing that for scores of stories every day would be unwieldy.

But what about changes that affect the tone and substance of an article?

Three Times editors told me clearly that they don’t believe that was required here. These changes were “about nuance and depth,” Mr. Purdy said. In our conversation, Mr. Tackett referred to “the blessing and the curse of real-time capability,” and he said he made changes to developing stories every day.

Fair enough. But in this case, I don’t agree.

My take: The changes to this story were so substantive that a reader who saw the piece when it first went up might come away with a very different sense of Mr. Sanders’s legislative accomplishments than one who saw it hours later. (The Sanders campaign shared the initial story on social media; it’s hard to imagine it would have done that if the edited version had appeared first.)

Given the level of revision, transparency with the readers required that they be given some kind of heads-up, and even an explanation.

Sullivan even concluded by admitting the editors had exercised a level of bias: “I would also observe that the “context” added here looked a lot like plain-old opinion to this reader, and quite a few others.”

Now, a few questions remain. Sullivan didn’t specifically address the issue of a pro-Clinton bias at the paper. Nor did she get a substantive answer from the writer herself. This is all Steinhauer had to offer:

Ms. Steinhauer, in a response to my email, suggested that I speak to editors because “it was an editing decision.”

Translation: I’m pissed off that the editors screwed up my story, but I’m not stupid enough to risk getting fired by saying so, because said editors are obviously petty little men who will hold the hell out of a grudge.

Speaking of the editors, Sullivan never resolved the issue of whether the changes were made at the behest of any input from the Clinton campaign:

Three editors told me in no uncertain terms that the editing changes had not been made in response to complaints from the Clinton camp. Did the Clinton people even reach out?

“Not that I know of,” Mr. Baquet told me in an email. The article’s immediate editor, Michael Tackett, agreed: “There’s zero evidence of that.”

Um, were those statements written by lawyers? How about just a definitive “no” if there was actually no influence from Camp Clinton?

Finally, the editors’ justification for the changes they made doesn’t pass the bullshit test, and Sullivan failed to adequately call them out:

“There was a feeling that the story wasn’t written into this moment,” Mr. Purdy said. After the editing changes, he said, “it got to be a deeper story,” with greater context.

So the addition of a few snarky lines about the “moon and the stars” makes a story deeper? Steinhauer’s original story was plenty deep, with significant research and context. The changes made by the editors were purely opinion-based, and changed the tone from “professional” to “smarmy.” As one of the top commenters pointed out, the alterations merely trivialized the story, and it’s too bad Sullivan didn’t explore that angle.

Nevertheless, in an election cycle when the mainstream media has come under fire from the progressive left for its pro-Clinton bias and its meager, often snide coverage of the Sanders campaign, any sense of accountability is a welcome change. As such, the Times should be congratulated for taking even a cursory glance in the mirror before it inevitably returns to its role as the official media arm of the Clinton campaign.

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